Dreamworld complicated crisis when Ardent Leisure CEO ‘appeared to be ducking for cover’: PR boss

The parent company of Dreamworld’s key mistake in handling how the news of its fatal accident played out in media was the failure of its CEO fronting the media straight away, a crisis communications expert has said.

Robyn Sefiani: Dreamworld was an example of how not to manage a crisis

Speaking at last week’s Mumbrella’s CommsCon, Robyn Sefiani, managing director and founder at Sefiani Communications Group, said the fatal Dreamworld accident was an example of how not to manage a crisis. 

“There are a number of reasons that I would make that observation. One of the complicating factors around the way the company handled the crisis was they started off with the CEO of Dreamworld fronting the media within an hour or an hour-and-a-half of the incident happening, and then two days later we found out that there was actually a CEO of a parent company Ardent Leisure who appeared to be ducking for cover,” she said.

“What happened with the Dreamworld crisis communications was it really spun out of control, whereas if you have a single person who is acting swiftly, authentically, openly and honestly, because what do we as public want to know?

“We want to know why did the accident happen, four people died that afternoon, how did it happen? Where did it happen? What is the company doing about it and can we be assured that it won’t happen again?

“The size of the crisis actually escalated because of that complication,” Sefiani added.

For Nicole McKechnie, director of external and corporate communications at Telstra, it demonstrated the importance of command and control.

“Command and control is critical in times of crisis,” she said.

Stephen Von Muenster, principal of DVM Law, agreed with Mckenchie saying companies need to be able to respond to crisis with a “general, with a strong enough personality to be able to deal with internal stakeholders”.

The second the smoke goes up you need to be nimble and flexible, you need a plan,” he said.

Ava Lawler, Stephen Von Muenster, Nicole McKechnie and Robyn Sefiani

Ava Lawler, managing director of Weber Shandwick, said the key role for that general or spokesperson is to collect and articulate appropriate information.

“Spokespeople do play an important role. The key thing is really making sure you’re collecting enough information up front and really being in control of that information and using it to create messaging and understanding what needs to be communicated to who, and then training that spokesperson very vehemently,” she said.

“An organisation that is prepared well for a crisis can identify the best spokesperson and nine times out of 10 that would and should be the CEO, and will make sure they are well prepped for any potential crisis that may come through so they are ready to face the press with the compassion and concern for all of those involved, communicating accurately and clearly.”

However when it comes to using social media to communicate with the press or the public, organisations should ver careful with their levels of engagement, Lawler warned.

“The first advice we give to clients about social media is to turn it off at the start. The key is making sure there’s no proactive or marketing pushes or competitions that’s going out into the market until you assess the situation and you’ve got control or an understanding of the messages that you want to go out with. You want to switch it off so you can manage it more proactively,” she said.

However Lawler said companies should certainly be monitoring what is being said and expressed through its relevant channels.

“[Monitor] what’s happening outside of your own channel, so what are others saying? And using the tools that you have to help to monitor shares and engagements. Identify who are the most vocal sharers on that topic and develop strategies around those,” Lawler said.

Sefiani agreed, recommending companies keep their social media engagement to a minimum and only reiterate the company statement.

“You have to try to resist reacting to social media posts because then you can make a situation worse and lose control of the message.

“Using your website and your Twitter to come back to your company statement is a very nice way to be able to update and refresh the information.”

Nicole McKechnie: ‘What we do find through social is we get an early indication of what might be the next coming issue in crisis’

Telstra’s McKechnie disagreed, focusing on companies that are already engaged by having 24/7 Facebook pages, so responding during a time of crisis is paramount.

“Unfortunately we have sort of bought into it already, we have 24/7 Facebook page where we are responding to customer complaints constantly, we’re always on there we have got large teams responding on Twitter and Facebook etc, and so our philosophy is as soon as a crisis happens we’ve got to respond quickly where we are getting back to our customers,” she said.

“The messaging needs to be absolutely consistent across every channel but it’s a listening as well as a connecting tool.

“It’s very much sticking to the position that we’ve got, but what we actually do find through social is we often get an early indication of what might be the next coming issue in crisis.”


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