What Can You Say in a Crisis?

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The incident itself was bad enough. The customer who fell is in tough shape, his family is already talking to an attorney, your staff is freaked out, and the media—hoping to latch-on to a trend or find something that hasn’t already been reported elsewhere—hasn’t given you a moment’s peace.

So, what are you supposed to do now? There’s no gentle way to put this: despite our best efforts, failure in the adventure park environment happens, and it can be fatal. The media coverage afterward can have a significant impact on your operations. How can you minimize that impact? Let’s look at some recent serious incidents involving aerial adventure operations to see how the operators managed the stories.

On Speaking Terms

In preparing this assessment, we did not speak with any of the operators. Our comments are based solely on news items obtained online, informed by extensive experience in communications and journalism, and reflective of exactly the information presented to the public by news media.

Key to our assessment is looking at how personnel at the impacted operations interacted with the media, the types of information they provided, the way they provided it, and how they were quoted. There’s an art to ensuring that news items include the points and statements you want them to include, and that art comes with training and practice. You don’t just wing it in other aspects of your business, and shouldn’t do that in dealing publicly with serious incidents, either.

Case #1

When: May, 2016
Location: Arizona
Apparatus involved: zip line
Victim: 17 year old female
Victim status: deceased
Incident synopsis: The victim was taking part in a high school ROTC training exercise. Before launching, she announced her intention to unclip from her harness part way down the zip line and drop approximately 60 feet into the river below—an activity news reports suggest was something of a ritual with students. In fact, organizers had a diver in the water below the zip line. When the victim fell, she failed to surface and the diver couldn’t find her. Her body was recovered several hours later by a Sheriff’s Office dive team.

Coverage assessment: News coverage of this incident remained localized and was over quite quickly, which, for all parties involved, is preferable. When negative stories carry on for days, real reputational damage gets done. But the reporting itself was sloppy and left out key information that almost certainly could have been found if reporters asked the right questions—including who actually owned and operated the apparatus, and what sort of training and supervision was provided to participants.

Incidents like this almost invariably involve law enforcement personnel, and where possible, it’s generally a good idea to let law enforcement do most of the talking with regard to specifics of the incident. We say “generally” because not all law enforcement offices have skilled spokespersons. But part of a successful emergency communications planning process includes establishing good relationships with your local law enforcement public information officer (or officers). If you do that, you’ll at least gain an understanding of their capabilities.

In this case, a chief deputy of the local sheriff’s office served as spokesperson, and did a competent job of describing the incident. The other story quote came from the superintendent of the victim’s high school, who did an okay job of expressing concern and compassion (C&C) for the girl’s family (we’ll discuss C&C statements in more detail later).

However, the superintendent also disputed the sheriff’s office statement that there was precedent for students intentionally unclipping. Given this disagreement between the two parties, it’s surprising that the press moved on so quickly after the incident. Statements by law enforcement spokespeople are generally given the benefit of the doubt by the public, and it’s extremely risky—for a number of reasons—to challenge them, unless you know for a fact that they got it wrong. And in that case, it’s usually better to have an offline discussion and have the agency issue the correction itself.

Based upon the handful of news items covering the incident, one could surmise that law enforcement actually got it right. Whether this is true or not, a shade of doubt was cast upon the information shared by those responsible for speaking to the incident. When that happens, it often makes the situation worse.

Case #2

When: May, 2014
Location: Hawaii
Apparatus involved: zip line
Victim: 29 year old female
Victim status: deceased
Incident synopsis: The victim was an employee working on a landing tower. A guest came in fast, hit the compression spring system and bounced back out over the edge of the platform. The victim attempted to keep the guest on the platform by grabbing him, but his backward momentum pulled her over the edge as well. She was not wearing a lanyard, and held on for several minutes before losing her grip and falling more than 100 feet into the ravine below. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Coverage assessment: This story received a lot more coverage than our previous example, and more broadly; news reports were generated both in Hawaii and in the San Francisco area, from which the victim had recently moved. The story was revived five months later, when OSHA announced fines against the operators of the attraction. It also got some attention from a legislator.

The operators of the zip line declined interview requests and instead distributed a statement by email. It’s always your right to do this, but be forewarned: doing so can make you look evasive and overly scripted, and that’s what their statement looked like to us, at least as it was presented in the stories. Let’s examine it, as it was covered: “The [company name]expresses its condolences and sympathy to those involved in today’s tragic event,” the statement said. “We especially offer our deepest aloha and prayers to the family and friends of our co-worker [name of victim]at this difficult time. We are working in full cooperation with the [name of]Police Department’s ongoing investigation.”

Now, there are some things we like about this, and some that we don’t. Let’s start with the inclusion of the C&C—the expression of concern and compassion. You almost always need one following a serious accident, and they will often be quoted in the stories, at least partially.

The statement itself is OK, but could be stronger. Google “our thoughts and prayers are with the family” and see how many hits you get. Ah, we’ll save you the trouble. It’s more than four million, which means it’s a cliché, and clichés on the heels of a tragedy usually sound insincere.

Even many PR pros can trip up on this. Effective C&C statements come from the heart. Creating them is a skill that can be taught with a little training. Suffice to say: if “thoughts and prayers are with the family” is the best you can do, run with it. We suggest you learn to be as authentic as possible.

This operator took a step in this direction, localizing its statement with the “aloha,” so it’s certainly better than some we’ve seen. We also liked the statement of cooperation with the local authorities (when the cops are involved, that’s just as important as the C&C). At the same time, the statement feels—to us, anyway—a bit canned, and that’s one of the shortcomings with sending prepared statements. They tend to come off as defensive and copied from a PR textbook.

Mind you, distributing prepared statements is sometimes your best of several difficult options, and we won’t second-guess the operator here. We’ll simply note that an actual quote—properly planned and delivered verbally—is almost always better, if you have the training and skills to deliver one.

Case #3

When: April, 2016
Location: Mexico
Apparatus involved: zip line
Victim: 36 year old female
Victim status: recoverable injuries
Incident synopsis: The victim was on a zip line excursion from a cruise ship, though apparently did not book it through the cruise line. During her fifth zip, some form of apparatus failure caused her to fall into a tree-covered gorge. She came to rest suspended upside down in the tree canopy and was rescued by operations staff. She returned to her ship, and sought medical treatment when she returned home.

Coverage assessment: Here’s a great example of how NOT to handle news of a major incident at your facility. The operator wasn’t entirely forthcoming—or accessible—for most of the news reports.

When that sort of thing happens, the press will turn to whoever will speak with them—and in this case, that was the victim, her husband, and another couple who were nearby. All were pretty shaken by what happened, so the story was heavily slanted their way.

Maybe that was appropriate. One news outlet did manage to corral the manager of the operation, who didn’t exactly help the cause, telling the outlet that “the zip line did not detach or break. Instead, a cable support mechanism failed.”

The manager went on with this direct quote: “It got weak in some way, and that’s what made it drop lower than normal. I believe it was a slow drop.”

Feeling reassured yet? We’re not. Remember what we said about it almost always being better to deliver a quote verbally—if you have the training and skills to do so? In this case, a well-written statement would clearly have been much better, especially given the language differences between the locations of the incident and the coverage. Hint: it’s a good idea to know where to find skilled translators if you regularly deal with customers from non-English-speaking nations, just in case you have to deal with foreign press.

Case #4

When: August, 2016
Location: Delaware
Apparatus involved: multi-element high ropes course
Victim: 59 year old female
Victim status: deceased
Incident synopsis: The victim was most of the way through a multi-element ropes course when she fell approximately 35 feet from a platform between elements. She was transported to a local medical facility, where she died a short time later.

Coverage assessment: The operator of the attraction has multiple venues both in the U.S. and in Great Britain. As a result, this incident produced significant coverage on both sides of the Atlantic, with the more sensationalist reporting in the UK (where sensationalized newspapers are more common than they are in the U.S.).

In our view, the operator did a lot of things very well. They immediately shut the venue and, in conjunction with law enforcement, began a comprehensive evaluation to determine the cause of the tragedy and thoroughly inspect all of the rope course elements—and made sure the news media knew they were doing these things.

The handling of the story was competent. We didn’t like their C&C statement—it was verbatim “thoughts and prayers with family.” But they correctly emphasized their cooperation with outside agencies and, even more importantly, were quoted as refusing to speculate on the cause in the early stages. That’s exactly the right thing to do. It can take a while to get a clear picture of what happened, and anyone who starts suggesting causes without definitive proof does so at their own peril.

The most interesting aspect of the company’s handling of the story was the release of a statement several days post-event, in which it said that despite having completed the mandatory pre-course training program, the victim had herself unclipped both of her safety lanyards prior to her fall.

Making such a statement can be risky on several levels. First, there’s equipment available that makes it extremely difficult for a user to double-unclip (though it’s probably safe to assume that most of the news media is unaware of this). The type of equipment used at the park never became a major part of the narrative.

Second, the release of that information by the company itself can easily give the impression that it was blaming the victim—and at least one social media response to the story suggested exactly that.

When releasing information that places responsibility for major accidents on others, be they victims or suppliers, it’s almost always better if it comes from a third party viewed by the public as credible—such as law enforcement or a state agency—rather than from a company trying to protect its own reputation.

But that’s not always possible. Sometimes, the investigations by those agencies can take months to complete, and even longer to disseminate. So based upon the reporting, we’d say the operator’s decision to release this information was probably appropriate, because it was based on the statements of eyewitnesses (who presumably provided the same information to law enforcement).

Even so, we’d caution that you not release information like this without first discussing it with your insurance carrier, your liability defense counsel, a qualified crisis communications specialist and, hopefully, the PIOs of relevant government agencies. Any or all of them might have a very good reason for killing your story, even if you know it to be true.

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About Author

Skip King has been managing crises and high-visibility incidents for more than 25 years. He serves as crisis communications counsel to the Outward Bound organization, and has provided crisis and issues management support in a variety of other industry sectors. He authored the National Ski Areas Association’s Crisis Management Guidelines, and has provided crisis communications training, planning and support to many winter resorts. His company, Reputation Strategies LLC, is based in Yarmouth, Maine. Info: www.reputationstrategies.com

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