Crisis comms lessons learned from Skydive Australia’s fatal accident

Following the tragic death of three skydivers on Mission Beach in Queensland last Friday, crisis comms expert Dr Neryl East considers what other brands can learn from its mistakes.

When a business experiences the nightmare of multiple fatalities on its watch, its public communication must be open, human and consistent.

So, where does a thriving listed company draw the line between empathy and “business as usual” when communicating with different audiences about such a tragedy?

Skydive the Beach Group – operating as Skydive Australia – found itself a key player in last Friday’s mid-air accident at Mission Beach in Queensland in which three skydivers died.

The next day, CEO Anthony Ritter’s media statement ticked the boxes of effective crisis communication. He outlined the facts as known by the company and conveyed the depth of the tragedy through heartfelt words and delivery. He also covered significant actions such as the suspension of skydiving at Mission Beach and the company’s cooperation with investigators.

Despite such a commendable media response, Skydive Australia’s own public communication channels remain largely silent about the tragedy.

The company’s Facebook page makes no mention of it. Jumps might have temporarily ceased at the accident site, but the Skydive Mission Beach website is a colourful montage of exhilarated faces and text spruiking “Australia’s favourite skydiving destination”.

It encourages prospective customers to book with a company that’s “energetic, experienced and committed to making your skydive a safe and memorable experience you’ll never forget”.

Caught in the dilemma of wanting to show its human face in the wake of loss of life, but fearing business downturn through damage to its reputation for safety, the company has split its personality and opted for two very different approaches.

It adds a third face for yet another audience, its shareholders. The Skydive Australia website contains an ASX announcement – difficult to find in the investors’ section – which acknowledges the tragedy but is circumspect about the details; describing an accident “near the company’s Mission beach dropzone.”

A few changes are required (click to enlarge)

While the statement expresses “heartfelt condolences” to the families of those who died, it then leaps to expressing how the company looks forward to recommencing operations shortly at Mission Beach. See my detailed mark-up of the statement paragraph-by-paragraph above.

This statement’s key message is all about getting back to usual business as quickly as possible. While pitched specifically to shareholders, it remains a form of public communication available on an open website, with a sentiment at odds with the public statements made by Anthony Ritter.

Even with that back-to-business tone, the Cairns Post reports the Skydive group’s share price dropped almost 12% after the market update.

Communicators can take important lessons from this case, including the complexity of messaging when audience needs are so diverse. One important factor can’t be overlooked: a critical incident is not business as usual.

However strong the temptation to continue revving the marketing machine, a business impacted by tragedy must show it’s prepared to stop and pay proper respect to the human ramifications of the incident. That response must be consistent across all channels, and to all audiences.

It’s simply too soon for the company to express eager anticipation about recommencing operations at Mission Beach, and the website for that specific skydive zone should be temporarily taken down and inquiries and bookings diverted elsewhere.

At its most basic, effective crisis communication needs to include three elements:

  • What happened
  • Empathy for those affected
  • Action steps – what happens next

How a business responds amid such a tragedy often determines how quickly it re-establishes reputation and builds valuable resilience capacity.

When the operators of Dreamworld talked about plans to reopen the amusement complex after last October’s tragedy which claimed four lives on the Thunder River Rapids ride, they were widely criticised and the reopening plans were quickly put on hold. So far at least, Skydive Australia has been fortunate to escape such media scrutiny.

That may be because there’s a community belief that skydiving is inherently more risky than an amusement ride. It might be because some of the players in the Dreamworld tragedy were seen as tall poppies and became media targets – not helped by the fact that they got it so wrong immediately after the event.

In any case, Skydive Australia would be wise to take heed of the Dreamworld tragedy. Go softly, go slowly, and remain humble. Acknowledge the facts of what happened and don’t be over-eager to restore usual operations.

Above all, be consistent. Don’t exhibit a different façade depending on the audience. That smacks of lack of inauthenticity, and may result in long-term reputation damage.

Dr Neryl East is an expert in crisis comms


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