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March 7, 2012

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Crisis management in the 24-hour news age

Plan, prepare and practise was the mantra preached by the participants in the ‘In the News’ panel discussion at the IOSH Conference this morning (7 March).

The Institution’s president Subash Ludhra was joined by his counterpart at the American Society of Safety Engineers, Terrie Norris, the vice-president of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineers, Andrew Cooper, Sue Pilkington – chair of the Board of Directors of the Safety Institute of Australia, and Malcolm McIntyre, chair of IOSH’s New Accession Countries Initiative.

The panel discussed three ‘hot topics’ that have recently made the headlines for safety reasons: the capsizing of the Costa Concordia cruise liner off the coast of Italy; the Deepwater Horizon disaster; and the death of a woman in an elevator incident in New York last December.

What was unanimously agreed by all the panellists in relation to all three incidents is that none of the organisations involved – Costa Crociere, BP and Transel Elevator Inc – managed their respective situations properly once things had gone wrong. And, in these days of 24-hour news and ‘citizen journalists’ armed with smartphones, such a lack of control can be hugely damaging to the reputation of the organisation.

Speaking about the Costa Concordia incident, Sue Pilkington said: “The perception was of a lack of capability on behalf of the company – of its loss of control of what was going on, and a complete lack of any planned response to the situation. It is so important to gain consumer confidence as soon as you can. Having an upfront, open and honest discussion about what is known and unknown is a crucial part of planning to manage situations such as these.”

Malcolm McIntyre agreed that the power of social media meant that the captain of the ship was tried and convicted by the public before any sort of formal proceedings have been launched. He said: “I would like to hear the evidence in a proper court before coming to any conclusions. Passengers in a panic will send messages on mobile phones at the time that are not properly considered.”

The main lesson for employers to take away from the incident so far, said Subash Ludhra, is the importance of focusing on what is foreseeable. “Ask yourself, are you prepared and planned for those eventualities? And if you are, then practise, practise, practise your procedures.”

Failure to engage brain before mouth was also BP’s problem in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon explosion but what the panellists lamented most in this case was the almost complete oversight of the fact that 11 people died in the blast. Said Andrew Cooper: “This was a story of human tragedy that quickly turned into an environmental issue. We need to respect the impact on the environment, of course, but don’t forget the impact on people, also.”

Malcolm McIntyre went further, saying every statement from the company should have started by mentioning the 11 dead workers. BP would probably have gained more sympathy from the public had they done so, he felt.

Terrie Norris said the key thing for organisations is to have their core message planned and key spokespeople properly trained in order to deal with the media and thus manage the public’s perception.

In the case of the New York elevator incident – in which a woman was crushed in a lift car because the maintenance workers allegedly overrode safety guards to get the job done and failed to re-engage them when they finished up – the panel agreed that in cases like this, both the contractor and client have clear responsibilities with regard to safety.

Terrie Norris emphasised that the selection and training of contractors is paramount, while Sue Pilkington pointed out that there must also be arrangements in place for employers to be able to check that what is going on at work sites away from the primary place of employment is being done safely and correctly.

Malcolm McIntyre agreed, saying the client – in this case, the building owner/occupier – should also have had some sort of check on the system to ensure the contractors had finished the work properly.

Subash Ludhra summed it up by reminding delegates that it all comes down to first principles: the competence of the contractors and who is in control of those contractors. He added: “These are routine activities, carried out day to day, so the key thing to avoid is complacency.”

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12 years ago

The main lesson for employers to take away from the incident so far, said Subash Ludhra, is the importance of focusing on what is foreseeable.

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