Friday, January 20, 2012

The Predictable Demise of the Costa Concordia

You know you have a big crisis when it can be seen from outer space.

While the images of the Costa Concordia lying on its side are unbelievable, the crisis was quite predictable, just like most crises. When crises strike, there are common elements that play out in a fairly predictable way. If you know them, you can be better prepared for a crisis at your company.

The first element common to most crises is surprise. I tell my clients that they better plan for that which they think impossible. I have heard "that will never happen" or "there's no way that could happen" from many people who've then had to deal with exactly the kind of crisis they said would never happen. History is filled with this type of arrogance (see Titanic, circa 1912). The passage below was written by Theresa Norton Masek who writes the Travel Pulse blog.

I first saw the photo of the Costa Concordia on its side half-submerged on my iPhone as I was preparing to disembark the Wind Surf in St. Maarten. Up until that sickening moment, I would have confidently assured anyone that such a disaster was impossible in this day and age.
Because people don't think things are possible, they often don't prepare to respond to the crisis. That leads to panic. Stories of the panicked, disorganized evacuation abound. There are even video clips taken from people's mobile phones that show first hand what it was like aboard the stricken ship. A certain amount of panic is expected when more than 4,000 people are involved, but the better prepared you are, the less panic there is.
Denial is the third common element in a crisis. Just off the coast of a picturesque Italian island there were no radio calls to the Italian Coast Guard from Concordia's bridge. In fact, the Coast Guard found out about a problem aboard the ship when passengers called relatives who then called police. The police notified the Coast Guard. Here is a timeline from The Telegraph in the UK.

10.06pm Coastguard calls Capt Schettino and asks him what is going on. He tells them “It’s all OK, it’s just a blackout, we’re taking care of the situation.” 
10.16pm Coastguard calls him again and he admits water is coming into the hull but says there is no emergency.
10.30pm Under pressure from the coastguard, the captain agrees to send a Mayday signal – 50 minutes after the collision. The ship is by now listing at 20 degrees. 
10.50pm Again under pressure from the coastguard, the captain orders the ship to be abandoned – 70 minutes after the vessel smashed into the rock. 
In every crisis, there is intense media scrutiny. I grabbed a quick screen shot from Google Thursday morning using "Costa Concordia" as the search term.

Nearly eighteen thousand stories since last Friday evening. That's about 3,000 stories a day (it's more than 21,000 stories now). One of the rules of crisis communications used to be that you want to be part of every story done about your company. That is simply not possible in today's information environment.

There other elements common to a crisis and I'll write about those in a future post. The sad part of all of this is that it didn't have to happen.

Most crises don't.

Bill Salvin

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