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Holiday season makes crisis management training front of mind

August 12, 2014 by Sophie Hunt

Recent news of a baggage handling crisis at Gatwick Airport will have struck dread into the hearts of holidaymakers and travel and tourism operators alike.

In a sector that’s highly vulnerable to risk and where business success depends on a positive reputation, it’s essential that companies have the necessary crisis management skills to respond appropriately if things go wrong.

Whether it’s a seriously delayed flight, a hotel guest whose child has been injured on-site or the closure of a theme park ride following an accident, the basic principles of good issues management remain the same – express empathy and concern, act swiftly and learn from the experience.

So, as we enter the peak holiday season when thousands of holidaymakers are setting off to enjoy their annual summer breaks, my four tips for any organisation reliant on a good reputation are as follows:

Number one – think the unthinkable.

Be vigilant when it comes to risk assessments and scenario planning. As the tragic loss of MH370 demonstrates, it’s important to consider every possible ‘what if…’ no matter how improbable they seem. Indeed, it’s only by asking difficult questions or pushing people out of their comfort zones that you’ll ensure your crisis management planning process is truly robust.

Number two – be prepared

A crisis is not the time to test how your team will respond under pressure.  Instead, plan ahead by identifying your team and providing them with the skills and resources they need to respond appropriately. Once you’ve done this, rehearse your team via desktop exercisesand simulations and evaluate any additional training needs.

When a Qatar Airways plane bound for Manchester Airport had to be escorted to its destination by a military jet following a possible bomb threat, various organisations needed to put their crisis management training into practice.  The speed and competence of their response suggested they had previously invested time and effort on crisis communication planning.

Number three – it’s ALWAYS about people

No one could fail to be moved by the pictures of the wrecked MH17 aircraft, but for me, it was the gut-wrenching images of children’s toys, books and games strewn across the crash site, together with shots of grieving relatives that provoked the strongest reaction.

People make the news and it’s important to remember this in any crisis response. Respect will be accorded to an organisation that demonstrates genuine empathy and expresses concern. Fail to do so and the consequences can be severe.

Number four – act swiftly 

In today’s 24 hour media society and in a world where social media is second nature for most of the population, companies have to recognise that a breaking issue can become global news within seconds.

For example, when a Boeing 777 operated by Asiana Airlines crashed at San Francisco airport last year killing two passengers and seriously injuring 48 others, images and footage of the wreckage began appearing on social media shortly after as passengers shared their experiences with loved ones and the world’s media.

This ability to shape the news agenda by posting unauthorised content in real time clearly demonstrates why it’s essential crisis management teams are prepared, confident and able to respond swiftly so they too can get their voices heard. Consider ways of enabling your team to do this, for example pre-agreeing approval processes and drafting template statements but always ensure that speed is not at the expense of accuracy.

No organisation is immune to crisis, but it’s wrong to assume they are always random, unpredictable ‘acts of God’.  The truth is there are things companies can do to reduce the possibility of suffering a crisis and by planning ahead, organisations will be in a stronger position to protect and maintain reputation in the event of one occurring.

18 AUGUST UPDATE: Take a look at Alex Johnson’s piece on how SeaWorld has handled the Blackfish issue. She raises an interesting point about the importance of using appropriate language in crisis communications.

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