The past week has seen two seemingly unconnected events spring to the headlines. On Monday, 25 people were killed in a West Virgina mine exposion (US). Just two days earlier, a Chinese coal carrier ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. It’s still sitting there and so far has lost about three tonnes of oil into the sea.
I say “seemingly unconnected” because geographically the two events are about as far apart as you get. The respective industries are also unrelated.
However, according to the New York Times, the owner of the West Virginian mine escaped prosecution in 2007 despite a warning that it was showing a “potential pattern of violations”.
Similarly, the Courier Mail reports that as many as 10 ships a month use a network of small channels through the Great Barrier Reef as shortcuts to open ocean, in a bid to cut transit times and increase the profitability of voyages originating from mineral-rich Queensland.
However the same story also notes that the ship’s owner, the China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company or COSCO, has a recent history of maritime accidents.
There are two points to take out of these examples.
Firstly, that regulation exists for a reason. On the whole I think governments tend to want to minimise their footprint on a given industry because it costs a lot of money to play kindergarten cop – taxpayer money that could be spent on other things, like hospitals, schools or roads. However if industries want to play in the “self-regulated” sandbox, it’s beholden on those industries and their constituent companies to establish a strong framework within which to operate.
Secondly, the role of crisis communication has to shoulder a degree of blame in instances like these, whether that’s through public affairs channels or the daily news media. I see crisis communication as a tool that makes it possible for an organisation in a crisis to get back to doing business as usual as quickly as possible. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that, because intrinsically it means fixing the crisis itself.
Problems come up when people forget what they should be doing. By definition, public relations is a management function that’s concerned with building and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between an organisation and its stakeholders (“the public”). At Hill & Knowlton we refer to it as Shaping Conversations, because as an external advisor that’s what we can do.
It’s not about press releases, parties and supporting the latest ad campaign. It is about maintaining an organisation’s right to operate in the eyes of the public. Too often, good crisis management helps organisations resolve serious problems, and then once the press office phones stop ringing everyone moves on.
That’s not good enough. Crisis managers should use the elevated adrenalin coursing through the Board’s collective system as motivation to change the way things are done. It requires an attitude shift – from constantly trying to look better, to constantly trying to be better. In established, highly-competitive industries such as shipping and mining this is often perceived as a costly albatross to carry.
This is the wrong view to have. People are more forgiving of companies that apologies when they make mistakes, make good when they cause harm, and improve their performance when something has gone completely awry. Serial offenders, on the other hand, raise public ire and draw heat from governments who are sensitive to voters’ demands for justice. That game can be far more costly.