“WE HAVE A PROBLEM.”
All sectors of the diving industry have a different interpretation of what constitutes a crisis.
For an Equipment Manufacturer or Distributor, a crisis may take the form of a widely circulated news story written by an industry ‘expert’ suggesting that a specific company’s products have inherent, life-threatening faults.
Training Agencies may regard widespread criticism of a particular programme as a crisis of customer confidence in their ability to deliver competent diver training.
Live-aboard and day-boat operators may face financial set-backs when a dive trip fails to meet a passenger’s expectations; and who then loudly proclaims their dissatisfaction with the operation by posting messages to various internet diving forums urging other potential customers to take their business elsewhere.
And although rare, there will be instances when a diving tragedy is the direct result of forces beyond anyone’s power to anticipate and prevent, a fatal shark attack, for example, or a sudden and unexpected change in forecast weather and sea conditions.
Taken individually these loose examples are unlikely to encourage media outrage – and in any event can usually be countered by aggressive marketing strategies and PR campaigns.
But viewed collectively – especially when coupled with an incident involving an apparently preventable injury or death – an aggressive journalist can skew the true facts about diving to paint a picture of an opportunistic industry more concerned with profit than it is with safety. It’s an increasingly more commonplace attitude; one in which accountability has now replaced the notion of self-responsibility.
None of which helps a dive operator faced with a crisis situation where they might have to deal with the loss, injury or death of a customer by whatever cause or reason, and who faces a barrage of questions from a media driven by the mantra, “if it bleeds, it leads.”
In any form of confrontation the advantage will, more usually, belong to the party nominating the time and place of the engagement.
Although it is unhelpful to the operator’s cause to ever think of the media in adversarial terms the very nature of a critical incident is one that tends to favour the journalist’s position; especially when the dive operator has no control over when or where they might be interviewed.
Obvious examples of where this might occur are:
• At the incident scene.
• At the dive store, or place of business.
• At home.
• Over the telephone.
At the incident scene
Dive operators are at their most vulnerable when they allow themselves to be questioned and filmed immediately following a diving incident; especially when they are present at the scene.
Because they will usually be coming to terms with their involvement in the matter – and in all probability still attempting to manage the situation and deal with the authorities – they are more likely to be less guarded in what they say.
And if they say nothing and refuse to respond to media questioning, then it is quite possible that other divers involved in the episode – as well as bystanders with little knowledge of the event – will be sought out by reporters and invited to give their opinions on what took place.
Under these circumstances, a dive operator should:
• Be courteous but firm in their refusal to answer specific and potentially damaging questions until such time as they have briefed the emergency service authorities on the incident. (Agree, however, to meet with the media once those tasks have been attended to.)
• Attempt to keep other employees present at the scene out of the media spotlight – having first ascertained that the appropriate emergency service authorities no longer require their presence.
• Rather than simply responding to questions put by reporters, take the initiative and issue a brief verbal statement summarising the facts, as they are known. Do not disclose the name of the victim – or the names of any of their companions involved in the incident.
• Advise reporters seeking personal information on the victim, or their dive buddies, to contact the authorities. (e.g. the police.)
• Stress that their concern at that moment is for the victim, their family and friends, but that they will be happy to answer detailed questions once the authorities have been fully briefed on what took place.
• Designate a time and place for that meeting.
• Ask the journalists for their contact details.
Specific “Do Not’s” for dive operators at this time include never agreeing to be photographed or filmed in any posed shot, particularly when that includes images of:
• The victim.
• Possibly distraught family, friends, or dive buddies.
• The equipment used on the dive.
• A potentially damaging backdrop. e.g. rough seas.
Neither should the operator allow stress to dictate their behaviour in front of journalists. They should always attempt to give the impression of being calm and in complete control of themselves and the situation.
At the Dive Store
Journalists, (especially those accompanied by photographers or television camera crews) arriving un-announced at the dive operator’s business premises can have an un-nerving effect. Particularly if the surroundings happen to be in need of a good makeover and where well-used rental equipment is in open view. It’s an experience made worse by the presence of staff and customers.
Becoming angry or defensive and insisting that the reporter immediately remove themselves from the building will not work to the operator’s advantage.
Unless there is a private room or office free from any distracting clutter – preferably one with neutrally coloured walls bare of pictures, posters, dealership signs and training agency logos – then the options of where an interview might be conducted are limited.
Even when the surroundings project a successful and positive image of diving, the operator should still consider either closing the shop to avoid interruptions while they respond to questions; or else suggest – particularly when given advance notice of a requested interview and where photographers might be present – that it takes place on neutral ground such as a nearby coffee shop or park.
Although this is less likely to occur, unexpected ‘doorstep’ interviews tend to breed a defensive siege mentality. Something that, in turn, may also prompt an angry, or ill-considered outburst that creates its own news value.
Even if they know the journalist well, it is unwise for an operator to invite media representatives into their home under such circumstances.
Neither should they, or any family members, be pressured into giving doorstep interviews.
An operator should, instead, calmly announce that they would be happy to answer questions at a more appropriate time; nominate the time and place for such an interview, and then, as far as possible, ignore any continued media presence outside the family home.
The next installment focuses on Telephone techniques.
Categories: Crisis Management Manual