Following any major crisis, there will be commentators who speculate wildly to draw conclusions which are both critical and categorically untrue. One of the most vital crisis communications skills is knowing when to engage and when to ignore the self-proclaimed experts.
Following a recent high-profile collision, an industry commentator drew on incomplete AIS data and a couple pictures of the damage to write a column “reconstructing” the events of the collision and blaming our client. Every one of the commentator’s assumptions was wrong.
Our client wanted to immediately issue a statement to correct the erroneous assumptions and allegations. We strongly advised against it.
A good crisis communications strategy should focus on directing the attention of stakeholders, not on correcting every detail or micromanaging every report.
If, in response to criticism, we issue a statement saying: “navigation errors did not contribute to the collision” or “the master was sober at the time of the incident” or “inexperience was not a factor in the collision” – where have we directed people’s attention? Navigation errors, drunkenness and inexperience. By attempting to correct the record, we instead draw attention to the negative speculation.
We aim to anticipate possible areas of criticism and address them proactively. For example, anticipating that experience might be an area for criticism, it would be wise to include in an early statement that the “officer of the watch had 15 years’ of accident free experience”. However, it is not possible to proactively address every single criticism, and so there will always be room for someone to take a line of critique which was not anticipated or was perhaps anticipated but not addressed for some strategic reason.
When faced with criticism based on speculation or incorrect information, we must evaluate how much stakeholder attention the criticism will receive. By responding to a critique, we will draw attention to it and risk giving it credibility; the very act of denying it will make people look twice and consider that it may be true. If, instead, we ignore it, we hope to starve it of attention.
An example looking at a conspiracy theory helps make the point. A small number of people believe that the American moon landings were faked. They have Facebook pages, chat groups, websites, baseball caps, etc. but they’re largely ignored by most people and media outlets. Now let’s imagine that Donald Trump decides to issue a statement correcting the record and declaring that the moon landings were real. Would this increase or decrease the number of people who believe the conspiracy? It would certainly draw global attention and, almost inevitably, increase the ranks of the speculators.
The same mechanisms work following a shipping incident; we must assess what speculation will remain contained unless we respond, and which speculation will gather momentum unless we respond.
Every situation must be evaluated with as much objectivity as possible – something that can be difficult when someone criticises the operations of your company and by extension your work.