In recent days, we’ve hit pretty hard on the mistake too many people who should know better — Facebook and CFO David Ebersman; Restoration Hardware and CEO Gary Friedman — make when they refuse to comment on bad news.
It’s easy to criticize, but harder to find examples of the reverse, the correct action, the smart move. But in the case to be discussed, we can see clearly how a reasonable and open response to a potentially tragic and dangerous event — with the ensuing potential reputation and business damage — eases the crisis.
The example, reported in the Buffalo News, deals with the Niagara River Whirlpool Jet Boat Ride. These powerful boats, carrying dozens of passengers, leave from docks at the northern-most end of the river near where it empties into Lake Ontario. They ride south, upriver toward Niagara Falls and into a series of whirlpools and rapids about five miles north of the Falls. It’s a fun, soaking and harrowing ride. And the other day, something went wrong.
Cascades of water washed three people out of the boat and into the swirling river. They were rescued and no injuries occurred. The key lesson herein lies in first reading the News account as if the only version of events came from the ejected passenger’s relative. Read it as if the ride operator only said “no comment.”
We would have been left to assume the worst. We’d have to conclude that the boat’s staff was negligent or at least careless, the people almost drowned and that potentially the ride is so unsafe that we’d want to avoid it the next time Uncle Charlie and Aunt Edna bring the kids to town.
Instead, ride owner John Kinney responded. He came across with facts, and was transparent. He expressed sympathy for those who went overboard, but also countered the witness’ negative comments with observations that make sense.
His response was so effective that the reporter felt compelled to summarize his counter arguments in the first paragraph of her story. As one who’s written hundreds of such stories, and edited thousands more, this is a crucial win for a company facing a potential crisis. The reporter judged Kinney’s credibility and immediately balanced the negative news with the responsible comment right in the lead.
Kinney still got a “he said,” [the critical witness] “she said,” [Kinney] story. But in the end, most people will judge Kinney to be truthful, honest and fair. He’s particularly effective here:
Kinney noted that his boats have taken 1.5 million passengers through the ride in the Niagara Gorge in the past 35 years and never had a problem.
OK, this was a scary event, but riders assume a certain amount of risk and responsibility when they accept the challenge by getting into the boat. His facts and reasonable responses show Kinney’s transparency and he thereby avoids a crisis and actually enhances his company’s reputation.
This is a rare example of a chief executive turning a crisis into the elusive and invaluable “transformational leadership.” Kinney uses the crisis to take responsibility for the incident, applies facts to show how his company handled the situation effectively, expresses sympathy and concern for the effected riders and in the end actually enhances his company’s reputation.
He comes out smelling like a rose [albeit a wet one].
The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.