It’s not just major companies that need good crisis communication

Last week a fatal accident occurred at a Melbourne building site. As Tony Jaques explains, some smaller businesses have a lot to learn about crisis communication.

A fatal industrial accident at lunchtime last Thursday has brutally exposed the importance of proactive crisis communication.

When one man was killed and two were injured by a load of wet concrete which fell from a crane on a Melbourne building site, the crane company seemingly decided not to say anything.

The predictable result was the unhelpful news.com headline the following day which said: “Crane company tight lipped after concrete dropped into pit of workers.”  

The story commented: “Today the microscope is firmly fixed on the family business that supplied the crane, an outfit that refuses to speak to media or offer a statement.”

In the face of a crisis every company – be it a large corporation or a family business – needs to speak promptly and with compassion. Despite what the lawyers might advise, there is always something to say, even if it is simply to convey sympathy to the families of the people involved.

According to The Age newspaper, the company eventually “broke its silence” more than 24 hours after the accident, when Michael Clark, CEO of Clark Cranes, issued a statement in which he reportedly extended his sympathy to the victims, their families and the workmates of those involved in the accident.

However we don’t know exactly what he said, because the statement was not posted on the Clark Cranes website or the company Facebook page. In fact neither platform had any company post within the last two years.

But we do know the CEO emphasised that preliminary inquiries into the accident suggested it was due to an “unprecedented failure in a part of the crane that is not normally subject to any form of inspection or maintenance, particularly given its age.” And that he said: “In the normal course of events these cranes can be expected to operate safely and reliably for many years.”

All of which may be true, but a crisis is not the normal course of events, and such assurance is no comfort at all to the mother of the 48-year-old man who died under more than a tonne of wet concrete. Nor to the man in critical condition in hospital.

The guidelines for crisis communication are very simple: state the facts as presently known (don’t speculate), apologise, empathise, and describe what actions you are taking.

In this case the company said they were co-operating with authorities. It stated the crane was new and on its first job and the Italian crane manufacturer was sending a team of investigators to help determine what went wrong.

But all of this was too late, too legalistic, and failed to properly acknowledge that a man had died. It is entirely possible they are doing the right thing out of the media gaze. But with the company under attack from a full-court press by the union, and reportedly being issued with safety notices halting the operation of its cranes at 80 sites across the country, it wasn’t enough.

Every company – be it a large corporation or a family business – should have an effective crisis response plan in place.  And the tragic accident in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne comes less than three months after another high-profile crisis with the same company involved when a crane in Richmond bent backwards in strong winds, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.  

While the company was anxious to stress that the two incidents were unrelated, that message may be focused more on the possibility of legal action than addressing the concerns of stakeholders.

Whatever the legal advisors may say, sympathy, empathy and a commitment to action needs to come first. And needs to come without delay.

Tony Jaques is the managing director of Issue Outcomes P/L


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