When Richard Doughty, chief executive of the Cutty Sark Trust, received a telephone call from presenter Edward Stourton during BBC's flagship Radio 4 show Today on 21 May last year (2007), his shock was audible.
On learning that the historic tea clipper ship was ablaze, Doughty instinctively responded: ‘I think you're mistaken.' Assured by Stourton that it was no error, Doughty had to participate in a live interview unsure whether the vessel, which was midway through a £25 million conservation project, had been destroyed.
There was no crisis management plan in place when flames were first spotted curling out of the Cutty Sark at 4.57am, nor when the London Fire Brigade arrived six minutes later to battle the now 40ft high flames.
But by 6.30am, with the media swarming around Greenwich, where the ship has been preserved in dry dock since 1954, a holding statement had been released by the Trust's director of communications Stephen Archer and a plan was in place.
‘We had an operational contingency plan,' explains Archer wryly. ‘But we did not have a press contingency plan. I would probably recommend one.'
Two trustees were despatched to Greenwich to handle media requests, while Archer took the decision to stay away from the cameras to manage the process.
‘By 8.30am, when we released a more detailed statement, every media outlet was at the Cutty Sark. There were four television crews and many radio stations, but I decided not to go to the ship,' explains Archer. ‘I was handling the rest of the media. We had calls from as far away as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.'
There were about 70 media requests as news of the fire hit the newswires and Archer and his fellow trustees had to field and handle these even though, in those first hours of that Monday morning, it was unclear whether the ship had been lost forever. The trustees, who had been personally involved with the conservation project, had to constrain their own emotions.
‘We had to walk a tight rope with very little information. We had to keep the story alive and to keep the media coming to us,' recalls Archer. ‘But we did not know whether the ship had been lost or could be saved. We had to take the opportunity to put the Cutty Sark's peril in the public eye. We reinforced the importance of the ship.'
When the Cutty Sark went up in flames, it was seven months into a conversation project for which the trustees had raised, with the help of the National Lottery and private benefactors, about £17.5 million. But it still had an estimated £7 million shortfall to complete the works.
More than 16 million people have visited the Cutty Sark since it first docked in Greenwich, and Archer and his fellow trustees seized on the national pride in a ship, that once broke records sailing its precious cargo of tea from Shanghai to London, to tailor their messages.
It was not until late on that first evening, however, that the trustees learned that much of the ship had been saved because 50 per cent of its timber, including the masts, coach house and some planking, had previously been removed for conservation work.
‘It became important to put out the message that we had not lost the ship but, secondly, to announce a public appeal. We adapted the website to take donations,' says Archer. Within minutes the first donors had come forward, and by the end of the second day members of the public had pledged more than £350,000. ‘We really promoted Save the ship and the need to preserve history. The first ship ever to be kept was the Golden Hind at Deptford [in South London] on the orders of Queen Elizabeth I. But it was not protected and was vandalised by the public, who stole its timber,' says Archer. ‘We said it would take more time, adding between 18 months and two years, and estimated that the fire would cost about £10 million, which turned out to be astonishingly accurate. We came out fighting. It is very easy to be cautious in these situations, but there is more risk if you leave unanswered questions.'
It was only on the issue of insurance that the trustees demurred. While some journalists wanted to know whether insurance would pay for the damage, the trustees did not want to reveal that cost of such coverage had proved prohibitive and that, consequently, the vessel had not been underwritten.
(In the event, an official investigation later found that the damage had been caused by an industrial vacuum cleaner, which a worker on the site had forgotten to unplug. The site's night watchmen were also criticised for incompetence.)
Aware that national media interest can often prove to be short lived, Archer invited journalists to return on the second day to survey the damage. Although it was still too dangerous to enter the ship, Archer arranged for journalists to get a bird's eye view of the damage from a platform on a crane, which was had previously been used in the preservation project. ‘The message on the second day was really about the public appeal,' he recalls.
The Monday following the fire was a Bank Holiday and Archer, determined to keep the ship in the public eye, invited the media back to Greenwich. ‘We wanted to keep our profile but one week after the fire things had started to cool down,' says Archer.
His determination, despite having little new to say on the subject, generated coverage on Radio 4, which led to a small news item the following morning on the Today programme. This was picked up by Radio 2 and Radio 5 and replayed on the hour every hour.
‘Associated Press, BBC News and BBC News 24 also returned and we updated them on where we were,' says Archer. ‘We tried to make the story interesting, which resulted in one minute or 50 second news pieces on the television.'
When the Metropolitan Police held a press conference to announce the findings of its investigation in September, Archer invited ITN and London Tonight down to the ship. The BBC also covered the story on its evening news show.
‘Prior to the fire, the Cutty Sark preservation project had enjoyed good coverage on local radio and television and support from Channel 4,' says Archer. ‘But coverage nationally was low and internationally was zero.' The fire generated about 200 pieces of coverage, including radio programmes in Australia and New Zealand.
OPEN AND HONEST
‘There were two strategies that were key to our success in generating coverage. Firstly, we were absolutely alert to the media needs following the fire - we viewed any media organisation as being our friend. Secondly, speed. We answered any request as quickly as we possibly could,' says Archer. ‘We recognised that the media was always a platform from which we could continue to build our story. We left space, as it were, to develop our position.'
For example, there was some debate about the veracity of describing the Cutty Sark's renovation as a preservation project if part of the ship had been destroyed.
‘It is worthwhile remembering that HMS Victory, which fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, is only 17 per cent original,' points out Archer, who also highlighted this little known fact to the media. ‘Three decks on the Cutty Sark were destroyed but two were not original anyway, and had problems so we were going to have to replace them.'
The solution was to source teak of the same age; more than 30 tonnes have been acquired from a hospital in India, which has added about £750,000 to the final bill.
‘The key to crisis management in the media is to empower a small team to fix it,' says Archer. ‘You can't manage a crisis by committee. If you start to do that, you have already lost the upper hand. Vacillating can lead to delays or mixed messages.'