Costa Cruise's blame game is dangerous crisis communication strategy

January 16, 2012 by Jonathan Hemus

As I glanced through the statement issued by Costa Cruises in the wake of the dreadful Costa Concordia accident, I noticed how it ticked the golden rules for crisis communication: concern and empathy for human life in para one; actions to address the situation in para two; messages about minimisation of environmental impact in para three.

So far, so good.  And then, in para four, I read this:

“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”

It is 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.

Here’s why:

it creates the impression of a business willing to jump to conclusions before all the facts are known, rather than keeping a cool head
it infers that the business’s top priority is protecting its own commercial interests and will use any means to do this, rather than focusing all attention on the human impact at this early stage
it implies a separation between company and employee which could be seen as artificial
it portrays an unflattering picture of a large business prepared to cast an individual employee adrift when the going gets tough
it creates further fuel for an extended crisis – controversy – as the captain denies the accusations
And what if investigations conclude that the captain was not to blame?  In this situation, Costa Cruise’s early pronouncement would be hugely damaging to reputation.

Effective crisis  management is of course about using all means at your disposal to protect corporate reputation.  But that doesn’t mean applying the most expedient and pragmatic message without careful thought. Statements and pronouncements from media spokespeople must be delivered with a clear understanding of not just the immediate term impact, but also how the business wants to be regarded a year later.

As a final point, history shows that businesses which pin crises on “human error” have frequently created the conditions in which human error is likely: insufficient training, a culture of profit before safety or an environment in which front-line employees are afraid to voice concerns, are all conditions which make a “human error” much more likely.

So, even if Costa Cruise’s allegation turns out to be true, it may still not be enough to protect its reputation.

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