Friday, October 05, 2012

Public Relations - Contrast and Compare

It will probably be many months before the public inquiry into Monday's tragic ferry disaster officially assigns blame for the fatal collision, but one thing that's already clear is that it has been a Public Relations disaster for Hongkong and Kowloon Ferry.  While Hongkong Electric was quick off the mark in bringing out senior figures - including the company's ultimate owner Li-Ka-shing - to answer questions, show concern, express sympathy for the dead and injured and their families, and promise practical assistance, it took HKF around 24 hours to put out a statement and another half a day before they held a press conference.

By this time, quotes from various sources had managed to plant an impression in the public mind - and some sections of the media - that the HKF ferry - the Sea Smooth - rammed into the Lamma IV, then sped away from the sinking vessel without trying to assist the passengers.  I suspect this is a distorted and simplistic account of the evening's events.   As Ulaca points out, we don't yet know which vessel was in the wrong place - perhaps both.  But beyond this, the captain of the Sea Smooth - which was also damaged in the collision and had injured passengers on board - may well have feared that his own vessel would sink as well.  In that case, his decision to head on to port and disembark his passengers as quickly as possible would make more sense than taking people off one sinking ship onto another.

This is of course speculation - but so is the other version of events.   Anyway, what should HKF have done that they didn't do, and which the mighty Hutchison empire's PR machine did so effectively?
  • In the event of a major incident, make senior executives available to the media as soon as possible.
  • Don't wait until all the facts are known - admit frankly that the incident is still being investigated, and express willingness to cooperate fully with any inquiry.
  • Express sympathy for the victims.
  • Offer them practical help (financial or otherwise) "without prejudice" (i.e. without acknowledging any responsibility for their plight until the facts become clearer).
  • If an unfavourable version of events is circulating, characterise this as speculation and suggest an alternative possible scenario which casts your staff in a more favourable light, while repeating that the facts are not yet known.
Pretty basic crisis management, really.

See also Joyce's post:

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