A few days ago, I partook in a large-scale crisis simulation on behalf of a client. The scenario – an explosion at a gas pipeline caused by construction work, injuring a number of people – reminded me of a real incident I dealt with years ago as European Head of Communications at Electrolux.
The Swedish multinational back then owned Diamant Boart, a company of Belgian origin specialized in stonework equipment. Diamant Boart had a new factory under construction in an industrial area called Ghislenghien, about 40 kilometers south of Brussels, in the year 2004 .
At around 8:20am on July 30th, a Friday, the local fire brigade arrived to investigate a reported leak in a gas pipeline crossing the industrial site. At 8:56, an explosion occurred. It immediately killed 15 people, including five Diamant Boart employees, and injured about 200. The disaster’s total death toll rose to 24 victims over the following weeks.
Managing crisis communication in a situation like this is challenging in various ways. Leaving aside the heavy emotional burden, some elements demand particular attention from a professional point of view.
Compared to more “standard” crisis scenarios, the complexity of stakeholders in a disaster is enormous. Media, authorities, politicians, investigators, victims’ families, neighbors, internal staff, customers and suppliers all have different expectations in terms of the type information and interaction they demand, and most certainly have varying objectives as to what they try to achieve.
Careful stakeholder mapping and meticulous documentation of any steps taken are essential in providing a basic structure, at least, for managing this complex scenario.
Transparency versus legal restraints
Wanting to be as open as possible collides with the uncertain legal implications of any statement made in such a chaotic and fragile situation. As for the Ghislenghien catastrophy, mutual blaming by some of the parties involved started almost immediately, and it wasn’t until five and a half years later that a verdict at a criminal court was delivered.
Close and trustful interaction between communicators and legal advisers is therefore absolutely crucial in order to be able to release statements in adequate timing while avoiding any disproportionate legal risk.
Dealing with uncertainty
In the first day or so, there was a constant flow of news bites from various sources, both official and unofficial, often vague and sometimes contradicting each other. This concerned, for example, the exact number of Diamant Boart colleagues affected, their condition and type of injuries, even their whereabouts – while the company of course was expected by many to release accurate updates on a regular base.
Probably the only way of handling this paradox is meticulous communication bit by bit – adding, with each new statement, exactly what has been confirmed in the meantime; no less and no more.
The human factor
The most important factor of communicating in disaster communication are, without doubt, the human beings representing the corporation in public. Notwithstanding prior trainings – no manager is really prepared to face relatives, colleagues or media in situations where lives have been lost. Yet the way they come across will ultimately shape the company’s s public perception going forward.
Humbleness, decency, true concern for those affected are key, yet without losing temper in a way that may jeopardize ongoing investigations or suggest any legal conclusions that haven’t been established yet.
That’s why personal encounters are so important. For example, we flew in the Group’s CEO to visit hospitalized victims and the families of deceased and injured employees. One of the local managers became the company’s face towards the media, conveying the image of a company that did everything it could to help ease the situation for those affected while professionally managing the situation business-wise.
Internal communication first
As in any crisis situation, own staff should always be informed first. Nothing is more frustrating than learning of new developments from the radio news, while oneself is so directly and emotionally involved. Always mind that, especially in critical situations, employees are a company’s most credible ambassadors. Yet if ill-informed, they may turn into its fiercest critics.
Pictures: Cemag, LaLibre