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How Seychelles’ spokesman got his crisis communication so wrong

August 24, 2011 Jonathan Hemus

For a country whose econony relies on tourism, there’s no bigger crisis communication challenge than dealing with a fatal shark attack.  So it’s little wonder that the Seychelles’ crisis media spokesperson, tourism chief Alain St Ange, sounded under pressure when conducting media interviews about the death of British tourist Ian Redmond.

What is surprising though is that he should have made so many fundamental and damaging mistakes in the way he handled his media interviews.  A thorough reputational risk assessment should identify the crisis scenarios capable of seriously damaging a reputation so that thorough crisis communication training and planning can take place ahead of  a possible crisis event.  Either a shark attack had not been identified as a potential risk (a serious oversight) or insufficient crisis media training had taken place to identify and prepare a spokesperson to deal with such an event.

So where exactly did Mr St Ange go wrong?  Listen to this early BBC interview which illustrates the following errors:

1) Inappropriate balance between messages about the victim versus messages about the Seychelles

Whilst Mr St Ange expresses sympathy for the victim and his family, this is out-weighed by messages focused inwardly on the Seychelles.  This smacks of self-interest and self-justification.  He twice describes the country as being “innocent” as though apportioning (or avoiding) blame is the priority at this stage.  More than this, his attempt to position the attacker as a “foreign shark”  and by inference not the responsibility of the Seychelles, stretches credulity.  The impression created – rightly or wrongly – is that the spokesperson cares more about the impact on business in the Seychelles than the human tragedy.  In other words, the exact opposite of what he should be communicating.

2) Inappropriate tone of  voice

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.  Mr St Ange fails to convincingly communicate compassion in his tone of voice.  Instead, he sounds business-like, matter of fact and slightly brusque.  The impression is  of someone slightly irritated that he is having to deal with a problem (and the media), rather than someone who cares deeply about what has happened.  Some may argue that the fact he is not a native English speaker is a key factor in his vocal delivery.  I say that’s not good enough: when your reputation is on the line, you cannot afford to field a spokesperson who is unable to create the right perceptions among viewers and listeners.  Crisis communication training is essential to identify and enahnce the skills of your crisis spokespeople

In this later clip, again featuring Alain St Ange, a further problem arises:

3) Poor preparation leads to unwanted headlines

Mr St Ange continues to defend the actions taken by the Seychelles to protect tourists, but in an apparently throw away remark – again communicated in a casual tone of voice - he concedes “we did try, but maybe not enough”.  Guess what the headlines were after this interview?  Almost universally, along the lines of “Seychelles tourism chief admits we could have done more”.  My criticism is not so much the message itself – acknowledging mistakes and committing to address them can be a very powerful and engaging message – more that it appeared to emerge in an unplanned way.  More than this, it seemed to conflict with earlier messages which sought to distance the Seychelles from blame.  To be successful, crisis spokespeople must know exactly want they want to communicate in a media interview and be pro-active in getting those messages across.  Consistency of message is crucial: media interest in crises can be sustained much longer in the event of mixed or conflicting messages.

The role of spokesperson in a crisis carries significant responsibility.  In addition to successfully communicating important information to stakeholders, the impression they create will influence longer term perceptions of the affected organisation.  Choosing the right person for this task, training them properly and providing them with the right messages can make  the differnce between preserving reputation, and seeing it severely damaged.

Jonathan Hemus

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

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