Richard Sambrook - The World at Large

Crisis and Communications

Just before he resigned, the CEO of Northern Ireland Water, Laurence McKenzie, was asked to reflect on what could have been done better in handling the crisis over Christmas where many thousands of customers were stranded without water for days. He said simply, “Communication”. He went on to explain that most of his customers were unaware of the factors which had led to the problems they experienced and his organisation could have done more to inform people about what was being done.

In one sense he is right – clear communication with customers and stakeholders is vital during crises – and a crucial factor in maintaining or recovering trust and reputation. In another sense, some may feel he was in denial. Although customers would have appreciated the best possible communications, what they really wanted was water.

The underlying, contributory factors to a crisis often lie buried some way in the past and are difficult to immediately find, or perhaps difficult for management teams to recognise and admit. SO BAA, in the wake of the problems suffered at Heathrow airport with snow just before Christmas, have launched an internal inquiry headed by a non-executive director to understand what went wrong and make recommendations for the future.

BAA’s CEO Colin Marshall did well through the episode with clear communications, taking tough questions head on and being visibly on site dealing with the situation. But the reasons Heathrow stuggled to a greater degree than other airports is down to more than a question of communications. Like Northern Ireland Water, the problems raise fundamental questions about investment in equipment and infrastructure and the decisions made over a number of years by successive management teams. Only an open and accountable inquiry may satisfy customers that either organisation has addressed the underlying causes and can be relied upon in future. Clear communication of its conclusions and actions will be essential in due course.

Poor communications certainly exacerbated BP’s Deepwater Oil Spill in the summer. But this week, a US government report again blamed management decisions taken in the past – cutting costs and saving time with unforeseen consequences. Such conclusions are often hard for management teams to hear and accept – but they must be seen to learn the lessons as openly and transparently as possible if public and political opinion is to be satisfied.

So clear communications remain vital in the immediate handling of a crisis and in the aftermath to restore trust. But communication shouldn’t be confused with causes or used as an excuse to avoid recognising deep seated issues which may be uncomfortable for management teams to confront.

About the author

Richard Sambrook is Global Vice Chairman and Chief Content Officer for Edelman. Before joining Edelman, Richard worked in the BBC when he ran BBC Sport, BBC News and finally the BBC’s Global News Division.