What if? One of the most powerful questions that any organisation can ask. What if a Eurostar train (or two, three, four) gets stuck in the Eurotunnel – would seem a pretty basic question for both organisations to have asked. Apparently neither did.
What if too many people turn up at Eurotunnel creating “saturation“? What if Eurostar is out of operation for a couple of days? More “what ifs?” that don’t seem to have crossed the minds of the PR or operational managers in these companies.
Or let’s try some UK local authorities – what if it snows in the middle of the afternoon, before we normally send out our gritting lorries? Or the airlines, or ferry companies – what if it snows just before the major Christmas break? (Or staff vote for a strike as in the case of British Airways, which seemed to get lucky when a judge ruled the ballot illegal.)
There are numerous causes of organisational crises – human error, fire, terrorist attack, electrical or other technical problems, bad weather – just to name a few which could any of the above problems.
Good crisis management works on the basis that any of these could happen – and considers the consequences in order to develop effective solutions. Again, basic management stuff.
From a PR perspective, we need to consider who is likely to be impacted, what methods of communications to use, the nature of our relationships with stakeholders (identifying organisational friends and foes), how the situation could develop – and how best to handle any situation that does arise.
It should go without saying that monitoring for early warning of issues, taking steps to avoid them escalating and having full contingency plans in place are part of essential crisis management.
Edmund King of the Automobile Association (@AApresident) even fired a clever PR warning shot across the soon-to-be icy decks of the local authorities by claiming they didn’t have enough salt for a major cold spell – just last week. Of course, the local government association (LGA) hotly denied this allegation. If they were right, the AA would benefit with fewer calls from members – and Edmund was right (which it turns out he was, at least in Reading and Basingstoke), the local authorities are left answering questions from the media higher government (which can’t hurt the AA’s reputation there either).
Most of these issues are initially operational problems – but if the communications element is poorly handled, then it can quickly become a public relations nightmare. Rachel at DigitalStuffing notes the issue of communications failures, which I believe appear across the board:
- First, good PR means preparing the ground work, building a good reputation, managing strategic relations and asking the “what if?” questions. This is the goodwill you rely on when operational problems occur. It has been evident that many people were unable to distinguish between Eurotunnel and Eurostar, with “Eurotunnel” used as a generic term, confusing the passenger train operations (Eurostar) from the infrastructure – and the operator of the car/freight trains (Eurotunnel). Unless you use the services, it is confusing – it seems surprising that neither organisation’s market research has ever identified the need to ensure there is clear understanding of the operation and brand of each concern.
- Senior executives seem ill-prepared to address issues. As mentioned above, the LGA used a denial strategy that left them open when the inevitable occurred at least somewhere in the country. The Eurostar boss publicly blamed Eurotunnel (whilst saying he wasn’t) for the communications problems – which is always a terrible strategy as ultimately the two organisations need to work together. Although subsequently claims it was the wrong type of snow – ie fluffy French stuff – were blamed.
- Employee relations are vital before, during and after any crisis. They are usually best placed to originate great “what if?” scenarios being closest to possible issues. The inability of Eurostar to communicate with its employees on the trains should have been known within the organisation – and regardless of the cause of the problem, this was a major issue waiting to happen. Following the Kings Cross fire over 20 years ago, the need to be able to communicate under ground has been known.
- There’s so much talk about employees being “brand advocates” but the reality is they are much more than that – especially in respect of crisis management. Eurostar seems not to have briefed the train staff on the procedure to adopt in such an eventuality. In turn, they have not been given any communications training and were ill-equipped to support the stranded and frightened passengers.
- Communications with the stranded passengers subsequent to their “rescue” were poor – with the media seeming to be more in touch with their experiences than Eurostar or Eurotunnel. How did the local authorities communicate with motorists affected by the lack of gritting? It seems they left the job to the police – and other commentators via the media.
- In many of the Winter blunderland organisations, explanation of the situation and communication about the action being taken have been communicated solely (or at least primarily) using traditional mainstream media – Twitter and other social media have not been used extensively to communicate direct with the public. Why go the long way round when there are direct means open to organisations at little cost (beyond time and motivation)?
- Marketing messages are still being communicated – I called the Eurotunnel FlexiPlus phone number yesterday (to cancel a booking) and instantly was advised this was the fastest route to France. What a joke!
- When there is a crisis, hiding behind recorded messages is insulting. In the case of Eurotunnel, the customer information line (08444 630000) provided little information and directed customers to the web (www.eurotunnel.com) to rebook. That means of communication was equally poor – and only allowed you to select another date, to travel in the same direction. The online instruction was to call the customer contact centre (08443 35 35 35) to cancel – which was another pathetic recorded message. (Or you can email: firstname.lastname@example.org) Hence, under “contact us” I found the FlexiPlus premium customer line (0844 335 3335) answered (after the marking message) by a real person. Although no apologies were expressed my cancellation was efficiently wiped off the system with a “phew that’s one out of the way” attitude.
- There has been no direct communication with people booked onto either Eurostar or Eurotunnel – and this seems common in other organisations such as the airlines. When making most travel bookings, you are required to provide email and mobile phone contact details. So, why not use these to actually update customers. Relying on media reports, rarely updated websites or recorded customer phone lines does not put the company in control of its own communications. Hence people turn to Twitter and other forums where wider criticism of the organisations soon escalates. I was busy packing my car to leave yesterday when my mum called – she lives in France but heard a television news report regarding Eurotunnel’s “saturation” meltdown – without this, I would have been stuck with two dogs in freezing conditions for hours. A text or email – or preferably both – would have been simple. After all, my dentist, doctor and car dealer all manage to do this for routine matters.
- Organisations need to have a better understanding of the impact of operational decisions made in the midst of a crisis. In the case of both Eurotunnel and Eurostar, it seems those caught up in the initial crisis have been prioritised over those with later bookings. So instead of frustrating a couple of thousand customers, the misery net is spread even wider. This causes more customer and public relations problems and ensures the crisis continues even longer. I understand my booking was not honoured yesterday because the company allowed additional bookings to be made on Sunday – how stupid is that?
- Never ignore politicians who will be vocal in most crisis scenarios – both local and national. They benefit from tough talk that places blame elsewhere – and I haven’t heard any supporting those organisations at the heart of the Winter blunderland, which implies poor reputation management with this stakeholder group, before and during the recent crisis situations.
- I doubt communications have been any better with shareholders who see their investments impacted by poor crisis management – and there are many other stakeholders (who are affected by, or can affect, the organisations’ future).
Of course, the other excuse is that we don’t get snow a lot in the UK and so aren’t prepared – but that’s a bit of a diversion, since the key issues relating to crisis management and communications would apply regardless of the cause.
It’s snow excuse – in my view.