That sinking feeling Article icon

That Crisis management experts claim there are valuable lessons to be learned from the Costa Concordia disaster

It is more than 13 years since British Midland Flight 92 crashed onto the embankment of the M1 motorway near Kegworth, killing 47 passengers and crew, but the response of the airline's former chief executive Sir  Michael Bishop is still held up as the ultimate example of how to lead in a crisis.

Without knowing the details of the incident, Sir Michael held interviews on his way to the scene of the crash. His response was seen as heartfelt and genuine, immediately expressing regret and pledging to 'leave no stone unturned in establishing the cause'. There was no thought about legal liability or obfuscating regarding responsibility. He was responding in a human way to what was, after all, a human tragedy.

Sir Richard Branson was similarly praised in 2007 when he arrived hours after a fatal Virgin Train crash in Cumbria to visit the scene, praise the driver and thank local residents and emergency services for their help.

And when US Airways successfully ditched in Hudson River, the airline's immediate response was to give each of the 150 passengers $5,000 in emergency cash because their belongings, including keys and money, were lying on the riverbed and might take crash investigators months to recover.

All three examples of crisis management have become the staple fodder of textbooks and case studies. Blame was never assigned. Remorse was expressed. Sympathy and support (financial and emotional) was given  to both survivors and victims' families.Yet despite these models of crisis management excellence, few of these lessons appear to have been applied in the aftermath of the Costa Concordia disaster when a cruise ship hit a reef off the Italian coast, requiring the evacuation of more than 4,000 passengers. At least 32 people died in the tragedy, but many bodies have still to be recovered. Face of response For Donald Steel, a  specialist in reputation and crisis management, the most striking failing of Costa Concordia's operators was the lack of a senior company executive publicly expressing remorse or travelling to the scene of the tragedy.

Just under 1,500 people live on Isola del Griglio, off the coast of Tucany, where the Costa Concordia finally grounded; many helped in the rescue of survivors while others opened their homes to provide accommodation. 'On a human level, you would expect a delegation to travel to the island and thank them for their support and assistance,' he explains. Howard Frank, vice chairman of Costa's owners Carnival, travelled to Italy but stayed predominantly in Genoa where Costa's headquarters are located, although a spokesman for the cruise liner said he had met with survivors near the scene.

Families of victims also find comfort in visiting the scene of the tragedies, but there has been no suggestion that any have made the pilgrimage. Steel questions whether an offer to assist with travel arrangements, which is accepted procedure following an airline disaster, has been made. But it is also a matter of leadership. Passengers abandoned the ship, leaving behind personal belongings; they needed information and practical support in, for example, getting emergency passports. 'It took more than 12 hours for Costa Cruises [who operated the cruise] to issue a statement,' adds Steel.

The statement thanked the islanders, coast guards and doctors assisting the injured and expressed condolences to families of the victims. It was also the first time a helpline number was announced which, in the immediate aftermath of conflicting information, passengers' families would have been desperate for.

Robert Jensen, president and chief executive ofKenyon International Disaster Management, the world's leading company in preparing and assisting businesses, companies and individuals in crises that involve human injury or the loss of life, says: 'For the survivors and the families of those deceased nothing will ever be the same. Costa cannot undo the sinking; they cannot turn back the clock. The only positive thing they can do is not make this worse. Yet, that is exactly what they are doing. What they can do is show leadership, compassion and courage.

Public information

'Once good communication has been established with the families and survivors, Costa should communicate with the public. Blaming the Captain prior to a full investigation is an easy but poor getout. Few accidents are the result of any single act; more often they result from multiple factors. Early blame merely causes people to protect themselves and not cooperate with investigations. Early blame deflects attention from care of the families and survivors, who should be the priority. It also builds a false expectation, that everything will be known quickly and over soon.'

Jonathan Hemus, founder of reputation consultancy Insignia Communications, was also shocked by Costa Cruises' statement, released less than 48 hours after the tragedy, that read: 'Preliminary indications are that there may have been significant human error on the part of the ship's master, Captain Francesco Schettino, which resulted in these grave consequences.'

Hemus describes it as 'the earliest and most explicit attempt to blame an employee for an incident that I have ever seen, and at best, I view it as an extremely high risk crisis management strategy'. He believes such a statement creates the 'impression of a business willing to jump to conclusions before all the facts are known, rather than keeping a cool head' and infers that its top priority is to protect its 'own commercial interests and will use any means to do this, rather than focusing all attention on the human impact at this stage'.

Nick Murray-Leslie, chief executive of Chatsworth Communications, echoed this view, adding: 'We still have yet to hear meaningfully from Micky Arison, chief executive of Carnival. He should have been there with sympathy and resolve from the start. The public expect a corporate mea culpa.'

Arison has been active on social media, tweeting his sympathy and support for those affected by the disaster, and linking to press releases, but by the end of January had yet to make a public statement. There were also unsubstantiated media reports that Carnival executives had been attending black tie events in their home city of Miami while bodies were still trapped in the ship. Murray-Leslie adds: 'Playing the blame game right from the start was unacceptable when the crisis was still a crisis - prejudicial and unhelpful. On a minor point, the English language updates on the corporate website were poorly written and unintelligible in parts, which meant one of the company's key paths to communicate with the outside world undermined confidence in its professionalism.

'The move to distance the Carnival brand name will backfire utterly. The strategy from the start was clearly to protect the parent by fronting with the Italian subsidiary, which in turn blamed the captain directly. This approach only works in the short term. The master brand will come under fire when the lawyers start getting busier.'

Lack of preparedness

The key issue, according to David Wilson, managing director of Bell Pottinger, was that Costa Cruises appeared to be ill-prepared to handle a crisis. While there are few recent incidents of cruise ships sinking, Wilson believes that any company operating in that sector - where people's lives are in their hands - should regularly rehearse crisis management scenarios and have a well-established system in place to react swiftly and effectively in the event of a disaster.

He has worked for both British Airways and P&O Ferries and argues that running through crisis management scenarios as many as three times a year, and at least annually, is essential. Steel agrees that preparations, plans and rehearsals are key to effective crisis management strategies.

Wilson was working in PR at P&O Ferries at the time of the Zeebrugge disaster when a Townsend Thoresen car and passenger ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise, sank in 1987 as a result of human error, leading to the loss of 193 lives. The maritime disaster was the deadliest involving a British ship in peacetime in 70 years. In the immediate aftermath, a senior executive speculated on television that the ferry had hit the harbour wall on its departure from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. This explanation was initially accepted by the media but as Townsend Thoresen refused to comment or elaborate further, suspicions rose.

It later emerged that the ferry had set sail without properly closing its bow doors. But when it became clear this was company procedure, to achieve quick turnaround times, the public metaphorically abandoned ship. Ironically, P&O Ferries had acquired Townsend Thoresen just weeks before the disaster but the public reaction forced it to rebrand all vessels P&O.

Twenty five years on, and these lessons should not be forgotten. Chatsworth's Murray-Leslie believes that highlighting the cruise industry's safety record is now imperative. 'The cruise industry as a whole has been ineffective in reassuring passengers on safety and procedures. The real task now for the cruise industry as a whole is a pinpoint focus immediately on internal communications, as opposed to external/media relations,' he says.

Lynda Redington, chief operations officer at Lexis - the Recommendation Agency, adds: 'There appears to have almost certainly been an under appreciation by the business of consumer and media sentiment on the gravity of the situation. The failure to follow the appropriate safety and evacuation procedures by both the Captain and crew raises very serious questions of the approach of the business to the vital aspect of passenger safety that was not sufficiently rebutted. 'In the face of all this, Carnival was almost invisible in the proceedings, missing a key opportunity to reassure all key stakeholders and communicate genuine compassion for passengers, crew and the local community.'

But Bell Pottinger's Wilson remains shocked that, just three days after the tragedy, Carnival Cruises, the ultimate parent company for Costa Cruises, put out an official statement detailing the likely impact that the disaster would have on its financial results. 'These are people's lives we are talking about,' he adds. 'We didn't need to know the monetary impact at that time. The focus should still have been on the human aspect rather than the financial impact.' The company calculated a short-term cost of between $85 million (£54 million) and $95 million (£60 million) but the long-term damage to its brand and reputation could ultimately prove immeasurable.