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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.

Jonathan Hemus

  • Jonathan Hemus, Insignia Communications
  • Follow Jonathan on Twitter @jhemusinsignia

9 Comments

Hello Jonathan,

I completely agree with you: Costa Cruises communication gives you the idea it might be all ship’s Master fault.

This it’s not probably true as it appears that it was a common habit sailing too close to the shore in order to say hello to the tourists and citizens on the coast.

From what I’ve learned on the media it seems that at the crisis point some communication, crew, training organization were missing.

Thanks for your important post and thoughts :)

Comment by Giulio Gargiullo — January 17, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

Giulio

Many thanks for your comment. I agree that the incident is unlikely to be entirely the fault of one man, and rumours of other ships sailing too close to land are beginning to hint at a broader issue. In any case, in most situations an employee is the responsibility of a business, not separate from them. And is it not a worrying message that the fate of passengers is entirely dependent upon one man?

These issues are among the reasons why Costa Cruise’s crisis communication strategy is unlikely to succeed in restoring its reputation: indeed it may make the situation worse

Jonathan

Comment by Jonathan Hemus — January 17, 2012 @ 1:09 pm

Hi Jonathan,

Very interesting and thoughtful post. While I tend to agree that jumping to conclusions so early is a risky game, I also think that Costa cruises communications have a ‘priviledged’ point of view on the facts. So I wonder: if the company dissociated themselves from the captain so neatly and so early, perhaps the captain’s line of action was so wrong that really cannot be defended… The latest media coverage seems to confirm that, and the ship master has already been condemned by the ‘social media people’.

If that’s the case, perhaps distancing the company from the captain is not the worst comms strategy?

Comment by Ennio Calzone — January 17, 2012 @ 11:29 pm

Ennio

Thank you for your comment. I agree that Costa Cruises probably had early and privileged information that led them to believe that the captain was to blame for the incident. However, even if this is true – indeed even if he is found to be guilty – I do not believe that it was the right strategy to publicly blame him, and here are the reasons why.

1) It just looks and feels wrong: a big company shifting all the blame and criticism on to one man doesn’t seem right. They could have stuck to the “too early to draw conclusions line” and allowed third parties to speculate that the captain was at fault. the same message would have emerged, but in a less crass way.

2) How was the captain allowed to make this error? On many occasions when companies have blamed “human error” for an accident the full story turns out to be rather different. Maybe junior members of staff lived in fear of contradicting a senior manager, maybe staff received insufficient training, maybe profit was put before safety, maybe there were insufficient preventative measures. All of these speak to the culture of the organisation, and only senior management can take responsibility for that.

3) I’m not convinced that a separation of company and employee is a viable distinction: surely a company is simply an aggregation of its people? If an employee causes an accident, does that excuse the company who employs them? If so, it’s a convenient get out clause for many companies in crisis.

4) What if the captain’s error is not the whole story? (and how could Costa Cruises know the whole story so early on?) Reports are emerging that liners sailed just as close to the shore on previous occasions: if true, the line about isolated human error is disproven. Worse, it damages trust and credibility in Costa Cruises at the very time when it needs them most.

Comment by Jonathan Hemus — January 17, 2012 @ 11:46 pm

When I first heard about the captain being blamed I was reminded of BP blaming employees in another terrible tragedy – the Texas City refinery incident. BP later retracted, but not before damage was done to its relationship with employees, unions and its credibility with all stakeholders; especially when the investigation found that employees had tried to warn the company about unsafe practices. The investigation ultimately blamed BP management. Another example – Exxon Valdez. If the captain is to blame, that still makes the company responsible in critical ways.

Comment by Beverlee Loat, APR — January 25, 2012 @ 11:28 pm

Beverlee

Many thanks for your comment. I agree that blaming employees is a dangerous strategy under any circumstances and BP is a good example of this. Indeed, I’d be wary of blaming any third party in the early stages of a crisis. At best, it can make the business look slippery and expedient; at worst deceitful.

Jonathan

Comment by Jonathan Hemus — January 26, 2012 @ 7:42 am

Playing the blame game in such circumstances is, to my mind, a losing strategy from the outset. When a tragedy strikes, whatever the reason / cause the compan’s first and overriding concern should be for its customers, staff and all those affected by whatever has happened. And this concern needs to be expressed publically. And visibly. By the most senior people possible. All things that from what I saw, Costa Cruise failed to do. Contrast this with the Kegworth air disaster at few years ago, when the then MD of the airline (Michael Bishop) made sure he was on the spot, interviewed there, providing condolences, reassurances and at least gave the appearance of caring about the people (rather than just the share price or who’s fault it was).

Comment by Gill Dickinson — January 26, 2012 @ 11:18 am

Gill

I couldn’t agree more with your analysis. Despite the passing of time, Michael Bishop still stands out as an examplar of how a business leader should act and communicate in the aftermath of a crisis. Richard Branson adopted a similar approach following a rail crash in Cumbria a couple of years back.

It’s no surprise that the reputations of their businesses survived and prospered despite the crises they endured.

Jonathan

Comment by Jonathan Hemus — January 26, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

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