Your man in a crisis Article icon

Your Robert Jensen is the chief executive of Kenyon International, the world's most extensive crisis management service, who is the first port of call for many companies involved in a mass fatality

Robert Jensen is an affable, engaging American. He is one of the world’s leading authorities – if not the leader – in his field of expertise, and yet the bosses of his company’s 500 plus clients hope that they will never see him again after they sign his retainer contract. It is a sentiment he echoes.

Because Jensen, chief executive of Kenyon International, specialises in crises. He is the man the chief executives call when their company is involved in a major incident. An incident that has resulted in mass fatalities.

Kenyon International Emergency Services is the only firm of its kind in the world that offers comprehensive resources and experience for every type of aviation disaster, natural disaster, war or terror. ‘Where’s our playing field?’ Jensen asks. ‘Oklahoma City, Bali, 9/11... I’ve been involved in two incidents which killed quarter of a million people, the Tsunami and the Haitian earthquake, within minutes.’

The services of Kenyon were called upon by Lufthansa last year after a 27-year-old co-pilot crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps. Within hours of taking a call, Jensen was on a flight to Frankfurt while members of his team were en route to the site of the incident. He was in Tunisia hours after terrorists slaughtered 38 tourists at the beach resort of Sousse. Such are the sensitivities around these cases, which are ongoing, that Jensen will not discuss them.

But companies cannot just call Jensen out of the blue and hire Kenyon’s services in the midst of a crisis. The business does not work like that, and Kenyon certainly doesn’t ‘ambulance chase’. Jensen meets the senior executive of every potential client before agreeing to work with them in the event of an emergency. ‘I have to know that the CEO of a company will be willing to meet bereaved relatives,’ says Jensen.

He also wants to know that a crisis response will not be delayed by red tape or belligerent lawyers insisting on anodyne statements that accept no liability and provide no information. He likes to meet the lawyers, the insurers and the PR people to assess whether they can all work together. If Jensen does not feel that the company will respond appropriately or there is a risk it will change direction in the midst of a crisis, he refuses to work with them.

‘We are selective. We want to select the companies we work with. We don’t take on US airlines,’ he says. ‘They’re too difficult.’ He turned down a major contract with Britain’s Ministry of Defence after it suggested changes in the way his business approached disasters. ‘We are never in charge,’ he adds. ‘Kenyon comes in to help, but I can say to the client I’ve been to ten incidents like this. I have seen the crisis response before; perhaps you could consider doing it in a different way?

While Kenyon is employed by corporates, in many respects its clients are really the bereaved relatives, looking after their needs or answering their questions. It is about providing practical help at a time of shock and confusion. ‘Our goal is to take them across the bridge from what was normal to what is normal now,’ he explains. ‘It is about how we build that bridge, and how we make relatives feel to take them safely off that bridge.’

By the time his team withdraw from a crisis situation, he estimates that 90 per cent of bereaved relatives have ‘crossed the bridge’. The rest will need further counselling. Is it hard not to get emotionally involved, I ask. ‘I tell my team that, as we say ‘hello’ to the family members, we are also saying ‘good bye’, Jensen replies.

How companies respond in the immediate aftermath of a mass fatality will ultimately dictate how these businesses are viewed in the future. ‘What is worse than loss of life?’ asks Jensen. ‘We can’t undo it. I can’t uninjure you. I can’t bring back the dead. The only thing I can do is not make it worse, not make it harder.’

There are no new lessons to learn from crises, he says. It is the response that is the key. Bereaved relatives do not initially blame an airline or hotel company, for example, after a fatal incident, but they start to blame them when their responses or support prove ineffectual.

‘Families don’t judge the company on an incident but on what they do after they are made aware of it,’ he adds. ‘They don’t immediately go to the media for the news. They go to the company itself. And they don’t want to talk to lawyers first. They want to talk to the company. Families want to know What happens to our loved ones? What happens to their property? What happens to me?

That may sound callous and selfish, but a crash may have orphaned a teenager or widowed a young woman. As Jensen says: ‘You can’t say I’ll get back to you.’

But much groundwork can be done by companies so that, in the event of a crisis, they are prepared to act within minutes. Kenyon has a specialist crisis communications service, staffed by experienced PR professionals who have handled multiple crises over their careers, who provide media training for company spokespersons and executives. ‘We’ll train the chief executive on how to talk to the media,’ he says. But they will also be taught a different tone to speak to the bereaved relatives or staff, who may have suffered the loss of colleagues.

The crisis team will also help to prepare formal statements, which can be updated in the event of an incident with additional information and contact details. Such statements can be signed off by lawyers and senior management in advance. Airlines, train companies, ferry businesses, for example, each dread the same thing: mass fatalities. It is the biggest risk to their business: they should prepare in advance for the worst, particularly as speed is of the essence in a crisis.

In this era of social media, Jensen believes there is little time to get it right. He suggests companies have just one quarter of an hour to put out their first statement, although ideally it should be released within five minutes of learning that there has been an incident. There may only be scant information. Their only source may be a tweet from an apparent eyewitness or a call from a journalist checking up, but a statement must be released.

The statement should, according to Jensen, cover three key points. It should say that the company has been made aware of an incident, that it has activated its crisis plan and resource and that it is concerned for the people involved. Such a response shows ‘command, concern, compassion’, says Jensen. Updates should be released every 15 minutes or so.

On occasion, there may be nothing new to say, but people need to feel that something is being done. Contact details may be added. Or a statement from a chief executive. Tiny changes to the wording may be made. But the thrust of the message should focus on the three points. If the company does not follow this structure, it could lose control of the news agenda.

Malaysian Airlines is not a client of Kenyon International, and Jensen denies rumours that he was approached to help after the airline’s response to the disappearance of Flight 370 was widely criticised. But he feels much of the criticism could have been avoided if Malaysian Airlines had a proper crisis management plan in place beforehand, and processes to assist the bereaved relatives.

‘They should have had a family website, where information was available, and the processes explained. They should have established contacts within the families to build a picture. They should not have been giving individual briefings,’ he says. Jensen would never have advised that the airline declared, in a series of text messages, that there were no survivors. ‘Relatives immediately think Who are you to play God?,’ explains Jensen. ‘It was a predictable response from the families.’

He likens the families’ outburst to that suffered by Howard Lutnick, chief executive of Cantor Fitzgerald, who lost 658 employees, including his brother, in the 9/11 attack. Four days later, he announced that Cantor Fitzgerald could not afford to pay the salaries of the missing employees, but that the families would share 25 per cent of the company’s profits for five years plus health insurance payments. In effect, he had announced there was no hope, and his colleagues had perished. ‘You’ve made the decision for them,’ explains Jensen. ‘There is no longer any ambiguity. Families are now confronted with making decisions.’

Jensen’s approach is somewhat different. He sits each family member down, and tells them that, while he will keep looking, he has been unable to find their relative. But there are now some practical matters to consider. ‘It is logic versus emotion,’ he says. He calmly explains that, in normal circumstances, death certificates are not issued for seven years if a body is not found. Life insurance payments cannot be made without such documentation. Other issues may arise in the near future, where it would be helpful to have a death certificate. His company is able to take away these problems, and to work with the authorities to get this documentation. At all times, he stresses, the search will continue, but this is merely a practical solution to enable family members to carry on with their day-to-day lives until there is news.

When the process of identification begins, it can take ‘anywhere between seven, 14 or 21 days, months or even a year’ to put names to bodies or body parts. Jensen’s team informs the relatives that they have ‘collected a profile of your loved one, including DNA’ but that identification ‘hasn’t happened yet, and may not be possible today’. He adds: ‘I tell them You can stay here and receive support or you can go home, but you can’t plan a funeral as there is no body. I will call you when I have information, and will fly you back to collect your loved one.’

He tells the story of one daughter of a passenger involved in a plane crash, who had been delegated by her family to stay and wait for news. After some weeks had passed, Jensen delivered his speech. She knew she had to return to work but felt she was letting down her father. Jensen promised to alert her the moment he had news, and to fly her back to the family centre, to accompany her father’s remains home. He was true to his word.

Delivering such a message to relatives, who are understandably distraught, and for whom English might not be their first language, brings its own complications. Translators must be found to cope with multiple languages. But Jensen and his team must first work with the translators to make sure that the message is consistent for all families, and that local nuances do not distort the information provided. They cannot take the risk that one person may misunderstand what they are being told, and destabilise others. And one person might have to be told many times before they ultimately understand what they are hearing. It is not news they wish to receive.

One of the first actions that an airline (or transport company) must take after an incident involving fatalities is to establish a correct passenger and crew manifest. Jensen claims he has never received a manifest that is 100 per cent accurate or complete first time around. Crew members may have swapped shifts. Passengers may have missed flights. Others may have caught an earlier one. Mistakes on the manifest, however, could lead to misinformation.

Inevitably, relatives must be notified that an incident involving loss of life has occurred. In the event of a plane crash, relatives often gather at airports awaiting information and it is then a matter of locating and establishing a family centre where staff are on hand to offer advice and support. Relatives based overseas are often flown to the centre. Many family members find comfort in visiting the site of a crash or incident, and so Kenyon will liaise with the authorities to arrange these.

In the case of the Germanwings crash, the actual site was inaccessible so family members were transported to a nearby village where the French authorities had erected a memorial. Kenyon’s team organised coaches for the seven hour round trip, packed lunches, flowers for the families to lay at the memorial, blankets, tissues and a car to follow the coach in case anybody changed their mind.

In many respects, the appropriate crisis management plan suggested by Jensen sounds like a massive spreadsheet of processes, collating and checking information. It involves counsellors, administrators and call centre staff, who are available 24 hours a day to answer questions in multiple languages. There is a lot of collating information, crosschecking information and double checking information. Every department shares the information they have collected.

Working with the airlines, Kenyon will also open a secure family website, which is only accessible to relatives, where material on the recovery process is available, plus administrative data, contact details and other useful information. Relatives use the site to swap information, or even to post tributes to their loved ones. It is a safe place for them to share with people who understand what they are going through. In time, another site is opened, featuring personal belongings recovered from the crash sites and asking relatives to identify them.

A file is opened for every passenger on the plane. Family members are asked questions about birth marks, scars, tattoos or piercings. They are asked about the colour of their relative’s eyes, their hair and their skin. Have they had any operations? What is their age? Kenyon is building up a picture of the individual, but the process is time consuming. Emotions are at play. People become forgetful. The information may initially be sketchy but over time, a clearer picture emerges. While relatives initially hope that their information will be used to find their loved one alive or their body intact, the reality is that the details will often be used to identify body parts.

A file is also opened for every person directly affected by the accident, whether that is a father of the deceased, a girlfriend, close friend or uncle, and on those who call in for information. They are asked to identify themselves, provide phone numbers and contact details and asked questions about their friend or relative. These 30-page documents are all focused on building a picture of the deceased. Friends may have personal information of which parents are unaware. No detail is too small.

‘Our forensics team may say Body X has the same characteristics as those of 20 passengers,’ says Jensen. It is then a matter of narrowing down the criteria, and cross-checking against all the additional information provided. The team creates a diagram of family relationships, rather like a family tree, so that in the event that a body can only be identified by DNA, they can identify which relatives to target to extract that.

But Jensen is at pains to point out that DNA testing is not as easy as it appears on American drama series, such as CSI. It is a lengthy and difficult process. There are unforeseen challenges. On one occasion, a married couple, who both had children from previous relationships, had adopted a child who was later involved with an adoptive sibling in a plane crash. Without a blood relative, identifying the remains from DNA was tricky. In talking with the parents, it emerged that they had kept the baby teeth of each child. These were ground to dust to extract DNA, and, through a long and complex process of elimination, the remains of both children were ultimately identified. The body who did not match the DNA profile could only be the adopted child.

Sometimes DNA is not enough. Jensen tells the story of a crash in California. The passenger manifest indicated that an off-duty crew member going home for the weekend had caught the plane at the last minute. All 88 passengers died in the crash but four bodies were not recovered, including that of the crew member. His mother was adamant that he had either missed the flight or that he had survived and was living, undiscovered, on an island. Jensen said that he would deliver the personal effects of her son, which included an old battered suitcase and, bizarrely, some bright pink hair rollers. On seeing these, the mother finally accepted the reality of the situation. Her son regularly borrowed his late grandmother’s suitcase, and the rollers were hers.

Kenyon International’s history dates back to 1 July 1906 when the boat train from Plymouth to London Waterloo derailed at speed, just outside Salisbury station, smashing into a milk train and a light engine, killing 28 people, including the driver, two firemen and a guard. It was the early days of forensic science, and the local police force called on the services of London-based funeral home J H Kenyon to help with identifying and recovering the bodies in a way that would preserve evidence.

Soon its services were called on to assist at aviation disasters, many involving airships, across Europe and other sectors recognised Kenyon’s ability to establish mortuaries on any terrain, and manage operations such as identification and the return of personal belongings. In 1975, Kenyon Emergency Services was created to meet this demand.

By the 1990s, Kenyon was regarded as the fourth blue light service within the UK. Police forces called on it for assistance with homicide investigations and incidents, such as suicides involving trains. Insurance companies employed its services overseas when clients suffered major incidents. It offered what Jensen describes as a ‘surge capacity’ for organisations, with the ability to recover, identify and repatriate bodies.

When Houston-based Service Corporation International (SCI), North America’s largest provider of funeral and cremation services, decided to expand overseas in 1993, it acquired a chain of funeral homes in the UK, including J H Kenyon and Kenyon Emergency Services. ‘SCI saw that this offshoot of a funeral home was a proper business, but it had no real level of sophistication in the services it offered,’ explains Jensen.

SCI spun Kenyon Emergency Services out of its funereal parent in 1996, relocated its headquarters to Houston and rebranded it Kenyon International Emergency Services, with a mandate to manage loss of life incidents in the US, which predominantly involved plane crashes.

Two years previously, USAir Flight 427 from Chicago crashed as it approached the runway at Pittsburgh International Airport, killing all passengers and crew. It was USAir’s fifth fatal accident. ‘The response from USAir was typical of the time,’ says Jensen. ‘We’re in control. We’re in charge. We’ll communicate decisions as and when we need to.’ Family members seeking information found it hard to contact the airline. Dozens of relatives who gathered at the airport were kept waiting for seven hours before they were told there had been a crash. Grief counsellors and mental health experts who turned up to offer their services were turned away. But worse was to come. Body parts were buried without informing the relatives, and it emerged that bone fragments of the deceased and their personal belongings had been thrown into a dumpster.

Public outrage at the treatment of the bereaved relatives led the US Congress to pass the Families Assistance Act in 1996, which required the National Transportation Safety Board and individual air carriers to address the needs of individuals whose relatives had been involved in aircraft accidents. The business model for Kenyon International changed as a result. Previously it had been hired by insurance companies. Now it was hired by the clients directly.

In 2003, Jensen, a former policeman who had served in the US Army in the 54th Quartermaster Company, which is the mortuary affairs unit, was appointed chief executive. Four years later, he acquired a majority stake in the business.

Today, Kenyon International still offers the services that made its name. Indeed, Jensen and his team once trekked two days through a Latin American jungle to reach the site of a crash and establish an initial morgue. But it has also expanded its offering, to provide the complete range of disaster recovery services, from setting up 24 hour call centres within 30 minutes of an incident, offering crisis communication expertise and press office facilities, searching and recovering human remains, providing all morgue processes, forensic identification and worldwide repatriation to providing legal advice on crisis-related matters.

Since Jensen acquired Kenyon International, he has assisted with more than 100 crises on every continent bar Antarctic. He employs 25 full-time staff at Kenyon’s bases in Houston, Texas and on an anonymous industrial estate in Bracknell, an hour’s drive from London. But he has 1,800 experts on call around the world. These may be police officers, army reservists, morticians, forensic scientists, coroners or quantity surveyors. Each must be relatively fit to endure tough working conditions or high temperatures, but defibrillators are brought to each site just in case the pressure gets too much.

His base in Bracknell has a suite of rooms which, in the event of an incident, can be converted into a 24/7 crisis management operation. Whiteboards in different rooms have details about ongoing cases, or the last items to be knocked off a ‘to do’ list before a case is finally closed. A cavernous warehouse contains emergency supplies, technical equipment and other items, such as cameras, bags to transport bio waste, manuals on tropical diseases and the risks associated with dead bodies at various temperatures, instructions for using satellite phones in various countries and stretchers for conveying dead bodies to temporary morgues. There are hard hats, Arctic clothing, waterproof clothing, sleeping bags and creams for insect bites, sunburn and poison ivy. There is even an old manual typewriter to allow the team to produce death certificates if required.

Everything is clearly marked. Everything is in its place. A box of teddy bears and toys looks out of place, but is used to comfort distressed children. Once the call comes in, the requisite equipment is recovered from the warehouse and Jensen takes his personal backpack from his locker and makes for the nearest airport. On occasion, Kenyon will charter a plane but often the team just travel on scheduled flights. ‘Our lockers and equipment are kept up to date, so that we are always ready to go at a moment’s notice,’ says Jensen.

The warehouses are also used to sift through personal belongings recovered from crash sites. Here they are cleaned, restored, photographed and catalogued, before being displayed on the family website for relatives to lay claim. Wedding rings that may have been damaged in the crash will be restored to a pristine state and diamonds or stones from engagement rings will be replaced. All items will be returned to the relatives. Nothing is discarded. Families find comfort in the most obscure items, a paperback novel that their loved one might have been reading at the moment of impact. Even credit cards get returned after being cancelled.

Five years ago, a nine year old Dutch boy was the sole survivor of Afriqiyah Airways Flight 771, which exploded as it came into land at Tripoli Airport in Libya. His parents had perished, but when he came around from surgery the boy asked for his Winnie the Pooh toy that had travelled with him. Some companies might have just bought a replacement, but the Kenyon staff scoured the crash site, found the bear and carefully restored it before returning it. For Jensen, it is just part of the job but it is also what sets his business apart.