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Crisis? What Crisis?

For anyone old enough to remember the title of the 1975 Supertramp album – I’m sorry.

At the time of that album’s release the Boeing 737 had already been in service for seven years and well on its way to becoming the most successful passenger jet ever built.

Little wonder then that with almost 10,500 737s built, across the 13 variants, leading up to the 737 MAX, for which the company held over 5,000 orders, Boeing was very keen for the MAX to be the comprehensive answer to the competitive threat presented by the Airbus A320.

The sheer numbers are staggering. There are over 1,250 737s in the air at any one time and there are two either landing or departing every five seconds. Most of us have flown on 737s more times that we can remember, let alone can count. As late as September last year Boeing were planning to boost production from 55 to 63 737s per month.

So, a little bit at stake when things go wrong. And wrong they went. As we know from the tragic circumstances of the loss of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, within five months of each other.

Boeing is in the grip of a proper crisis. All 737 Max have been grounded, orders are being cancelled and the airline is scrambling to explain how automated control systems designed to compensate for the aerodynamic changes created by larger extended range and efficiency engines, could end-up pushing the aircraft into the ground.

The first rule of crisis management is – always tell the truth. Tell it as well as you can, but don’t obfuscate, don’t delay and, most of all, don’t lie.

We won’t know for some time (doubtless after many protracted court cases) if Boeing lied. But they did initially try to blame the Lion Air pilots and resist a grounding of the almost 400 737 MAXs in service.

It is hard to imagine the pressure on corporations when such a critical part of their business is under threat. However, we are talking about people’s lives so, if a crisis is mishandled it can be fatal. Not only for the innocent travellers but also for the corporation.

Boeing is ‘too big to fail’ but those who run it, today, are not. This saga has only just begun.

In any circumstance, the reputation of the company and the careers of those in charge may have been past saving, even if they had fully disclosed what they probably knew after the Lion Air loss. To have waited for second, almost identical, incident and, even then, to try to run from immediate responsibility is not only reprehensible, it may even be criminal

There will be blood. It will come from Boeing’s Seattle HQ.

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When it does go wrong, everyone will know about it – immediately

The good news is that all 103 passengers and crew survived the crash of an Aeromexico flight that came down shortly after take-off from Gaudalupe.

That really should be all there is to say, were it not for the fact that passengers who escaped the aircraft took pictures of the crash and posted them online, even before the emergency services arrived.

That is how fast news travels today, via social media. Anyone with a mobile phone can be an on-the-spot reporter. For businesses considering their crisis management plans that knowledge should be an immediate jolt to review such plans and be prepared for immediate response. Even if only to prepare holding statements, to be used until facts can be ascertained.

How many businesses with, any sort of public profile, can say they are prepared for such immediate response? Waiting to have all the facts at hand is becoming a luxury that can make a public facing business look slow and disengaged.

Immediate review of public response protocols and standby statements should be, if not already done, an urgent priority.

It may be impossible to predict every eventuality but it is possible to be ready for the unexpected.

RMK+A has long experience in managing media and public response to significant situations and in providing businesses with the tools to react, in a reputation sensitive manner.

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Instant feedback is going to get you – a cautionary lesson

One of the most damaging and cringe-worthy moments in the Ardent Leisure response to the deaths at Dreamworld was the sight of Ardent CEO, Deborah Thomas, live on-air asserting that that a family had been contacted when she was seemingly not in possession of the full facts.

She was asked if the company had reached out to the mother of the two adult siblings who died on the Thunder Rapids ride. She said they had.

When told that one of mothers, Mrs. Dorset, was watching and had told the journalist who had asked the question that no one from the company had actually contacted her, Ms Thomas then change her statement to say that the company did not know how to contact Mrs. Dorset. The reporter then gave Ms. Thomas Mrs. Dorset’s mobile number.

Crisis management lesson: When fronting the media and you are not absolutely certain of your position don’t try to muddle through. If you have not done something yourself don’t assume it has been done and state it as a fact. If you don’t know or are not sure, say you don’t know or are not sure. That may not be the best outcome, but it’s better than getting it wrong because today’s instant media feedback loop will catch you out and make you look a fool, or worse.

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Nightmare in Dreamworld

The deep Dreamworld tragedy is now the nightmare that may not be forgotten or forgiven.
Equally, the reputation wreckage left in the roiling wake of that Thunder River Rapids ride was avoidable. What was needed amidst chaos were clear, and above all, human and humane thinking. Not easy, no. But necessary and totally expected from highly paid executives.

Of course, we don’t know the full deliberations of Dreamworld or the advice it took or rejected.
We only see the public result. From that it’s hard to know why the plainly obvious can remain so apparently unseeable to decision-makers in crisis, as they react – perhaps inadvertently – to deepen pain and destroy their reputation.

This crisis was bad and tragic. The disastrous effect of the bad response was totally foreseeable.
Dreamworld’s CEO started sensitively, with a quick statement after the event declaring that all efforts were bent to helping authorities, and all thought and hearts were with family and friends.

I’ve seen enough executives gripped by crises to know these feelings are sincere.

After that, things plummeted. In the Dreamworld bunker, the world must have been spinning so fast they probably felt they had no time to reflect fully on the humanity of their decisions. It truth, the executives may not have appreciated well enough how to manage the time they had.
Crises are awful, for sure. But their public unravelling, and searing media scrutiny, follow a pattern.

The first part, typically the first 24 hours, is about acknowledging tragedy, immediate condolences, unconditional co-operation with investigators, and the facts: what happened; what are the casualties; how big; what is happening now. Dreamworld did this quickly. The second part, the next day or so, is about the human face and grief: the victims and families, the scene pictures and videos, the stunned witnesses, the scene aftermath. The last part, which can take weeks, months and years, is about speculation, fault, blame, legal cases and recovery. Being clear-headed about these phases is not to diminish the tragedy, but rather to create space to respond sincerely to it.

What does this mean for Dreamworld, and why did they crash their own crisis response?

While within hours of the disaster the CEO was rightly expressing his shock and pain for victims, families, patrons and staff, internally Dreamworld needed to focus completely on day two.

Had they fully understood that every flinch of their corporate face would be interpreted mercilessly against the rawness of human grief, they could have demonstrated their sincere organisational grief accordingly. Measured against the tragedy, even the whiff of re-opening the park could only be interpreted as unconscionable. While the intent was to offer a memorial event, the effect signalled an untimely rush to reopen for business.

Keeping the victims and families as their priority, Dreamworld apparently overlooked that the only conceivable reopening or memorial event could occur only if families of victims explicitly requested it, and then only as they wanted it – and with police and safety inspectors’ endorsement. Further, that the CEO of parent company, Ardent, could be financially rewarded (a bonus) during this crisis, even if for retrospective good work, is mind boggling. Would a carmaker choose a horror fatal crash as the moment to laud the safety advances of its chief engineer?

It might be said that this is hindsight. But here’s some foresight.

Dreamworld’s nightmare is not over yet. Mercifully, Ardent finally conceded that they did not get their response right. They still have the aftermath to manage, the on-going blame, the leaks, the speculation, the recovery, the legal case all to come. Will they shut down? Or will they open?
Here is the really tough bit. Now is the opportunity for Dreamworld to redeem itself, somewhat, by being as transparent and open as possible. Yes, they need legal advice. But another error in crises is to rely too heavily on legal advice that is focussed predominantly on limiting liability. I don’t offer legal advice, but reputational advice suggests that Dreamworld must consider quickly how it may more publicly and practically demonstrate its regret and apology to families, staff and patrons and show continuing sincere empathy.

Is vowing to run one of the safest parks enough? What were they aiming for before?

To repair some trust, they must show patrons and community that they are trustworthy. That means even  if  they find a weakness in practices; and how they could commit to making their own internal investigations fully public.

It is about demonstrating honesty and openness when it hurts the most, even if it costs money in the short term, because you can almost guarantee it’s going to cost that and more in the long term.