“I don’t feel as secure as I did back in 2007,” muses Virgin Trains communications director Arthur Leathley on the brand’s crisis management response to the well-publicised crash involving one of its trains.
“With a similar incident again, how well prepared are we? Do we even have the right IT? We’re heavily dependent on BlackBerries. Have we got every password to hand? This is on our minds all the time,” he admits.
The fifth anniversary of the Virgin Trains crash in Cumbria occurred in February but crisis management is a reputation issue that never goes away for businesses. “You’ve still got to do the basics and have the right ethos, but the practicalities of how you deal with it have changed markedly,” warns Leathley.
On the night of Friday 23 February 2007, it was the media that initially alerted the communications team to reports about a train derailing. Leathley remembers it popping up on the BBC website around the same time Virgin’s control centre contacted them with the news.
“There was a BBC executive, Caroline Thomson, on the train,” he says. “So we had to deal with that level of media speed. To have it literally out there within minutes was incredibly quick.”
As soon as a press officer picked up the message from control, it was passed on to the rest of the department. The communications officers were drawn into the office. Leathley says that this strategy followed the belief that there is a “golden hour” where brands must take control of any crisis. If companies do not react quickly enough, the impression formed by the public can be greatly damaging.
These days, he suggests, the golden hour is less set in stone. Social media – which reports on events in real time – mean that communications staff may need to act within minutes or seconds.
“We had a luxury then – the media would wait half an hour for a press release or statement,” he says. “Now, you’d expect to have a post on Twitter or Facebook within 15 to 20 minutes to at least confirm something has happened.”
Virgin Trains has also reviewed its practice of drawing all communications staff into the office in an emergency. It now prefers to have
at least one on-call person staying put in their location to ensure there is no interruption in their ability to deal with a crisis while staff travel to the office. This flexibility makes it possible to handle situations from multiple bases.
The company would now take a digital-first approach to its golden hour communications, he adds. “The order would be: Twitter, Facebook, website alert, then media statement,” he says. “The media might be offended by that, but it’s the reality – customers are quicker off the ground at commenting than the media.
“You have to get some level of control and get information out there. Rumour spirals and hundreds of tweets would go around. So you have to be quick and confirm something has happened – in slightly corporate speak, which I know doesn’t work well on Twitter.
“You’re certainly not going to be chatty about it. Regardless of the medium, the message has to be serious. It will jar, but in the event of a major incident, hopefully people will understand.”
According to Leathley, after brands provide a quick, brief acknowledgement of, and response to, any crisis, the situation moves onto a new phase. Rather than being reactive to public and media enquiries, it is up to the brand to put out as much information as it can to reassure people.
Leathley criticises the response to another transport disaster, where two trains collided in the morning rush hour at Ladbroke Grove in London. The crash, on 5 October 1999, killed 31 people and injured more than 520. He claims the scale of the event led the police and rail industry staff to give out different casualty figures.
“That’s a PR nightmare,” he says. “Not just for your reputation, but it’s also unprofessional. Only give out correct information.”
During Virgin’s 2007 incident, he says he was careful to co-ordinate everything with all other stakeholders so there would be no confusion of this type. It is also vital to keep any investors and the financial community abreast of developments. While there is a set of regulatory procedures for stock exchange announcements, keeping everyone up to date can reassure stakeholders and onlookers about the quality of management at the organisation.
Leathley says that it is also vital to try and work out where the press may direct questions. In the case of a transport accident, for example, he says the first question is always whether the driver has been tested for drugs or alcohol.
A positive angle
In the course of finding proactive information to reassure customers after the crash, Leathley says the brand considered if any positive information was available to reassure people planning to use Virgin services in future.
“Even early on, we knew that one fatality at a crash at that [high] speed [represented] a low fatality rate and the train was built for that reason with safety in mind,” he says. “So we wanted people to know that, not just as a brand thing, but as an assurance, because the rest of our trains would be running the next day.”
The communications team spoke to the train manufacturers to obtain exact information on the train design and its capacity to withstand shock. The resulting press coverage of the crash picked up on this positive story, with newspapers providing readers with diagrams showing why the train design had helped combat greater casualties.
Rumour spirals and hundreds of tweets would go around. So you have to be quick and confirm something has happened
Another reason why Virgin Trains has often been praised for its response to the train crash was the attitude of its senior executives. Virgin figurehead Richard Branson immediately returned from a holiday to visit the site of the crash the next morning. This helped reassure consumers about just how seriously the company was taking the accident.
“It was the first time Branson has had a fatality at any of his travel companies,” says Leathley. “He was emotional and it came across to the public that he felt very strongly.”
Leathley dismisses any suggestion that Branson’s presence was a strategy planned to garner public approval. “It wasn’t a PR stunt as some people would like to pretend,” he says. “If you do something that’s right, it’s right for PR. But don’t manufacture that in a crisis.”
Simply having your corporate leader turn up is not enough, according to Leathley. He says that chief executives should adopt an approach fitting for their personality. So while Branson was emotional at the crash site, this is his approach to business projects in general.
“Start with being yourself,” says Leathley. “If you are emotional, be emotional within reason – falling apart is not a great message to staff. If you are shocked, you can look shocked by an incident. Shedding a tear is human.”
He adds that a PR team must play to its chief executive’s strengths.
Aftermath and review
But once the chief executive has made public appearances and the immediate concerns of the crash have fallen away, how should brands communicate from then on? According to Leathley, this area is often neglected but he believes the follow-up to the accident has been a major reason why the incident has been perceived so positively in retrospect.
He says that Virgin Trains attempted to make sure anyone affected by the crash felt the company had taken care of them. The business bought replacement items, such as glasses, laptops and clothing without quibbling. Although Network Rail, as the manager of the track, might be ultimately responsible for the claims, it was important to be seen to be doing the right thing.
“One customer in his 70s lost his Parker pen, which he got when he was 21,” says Leathley. “He couldn’t get another one in the UK, but we managed to get a replica from Parker in the US. That’s a tiny thing you don’t expect the media to pick up on, and we could have just given him money, but I thought it was a nice thing to do.”
He adds that the person who dealt with the family of the woman killed in the crash is still in regular contact with them. “I hope they would speak well of us,” he says. “That story has vanished from the media over time but we still mark it each year.”
The company also held a post-crisis review, around a month after the original incident. Leathley admits there were a number of issues that needed analysis. The company discovered it needed more people on crisis backup; the communications team had coped for a short period of time focusing on the immediate aftermath, but would have struggled to cope with an unfolding problem over many days.
He adds that Virgin Trains also decided that internal communications needed to become entwined with external relations. “The messages you put out to the media and customers have to be the same as the ones you are getting to your staff,” he says.
A crisis affects the whole business, he says, not just those people directly dealing with it. Leathley says that staff were asking what the crash meant for the business or if it would affect their jobs if the company lost income. He explains: “It’s very easy to thank the 50-odd people on site helping out, but there were people from revenues and finance who came in to help out the communications team.”
Advice for brands
Ultimately, Leathley says, the crash emphasised the importance for Virgin Trains of preparing for any future events – but brands must make sure they regularly update their crisis plans.
“I think we were better placed than a lot of companies but I think we need to be ahead of the customer,” he says. “The next big crisis may not even be an accident – it could be something like avian flu. That could knock the business sideways. So we have to learn how to deal with it all.”
What went wrong?
On the evening of Friday 23 February 2007, a London-to-Glasgow service run by Virgin Trains derailed at Grayrigg, near Kendal, killing one person and seriously injuring several others. The service was carrying more than 100 passengers at the time. Eighty-four-year-old Margaret Masson was the first casualty ever recorded by a Virgin-branded travel company.
Why did things go wrong?
The accident was judged to be the result of the failure of a points system. An inspection scheduled for five days earlier had been missed and possible faults had gone undetected. Network Rail checked more than 700 other sets of similar points around the country as a “precautionary measure”. Virgin Trains was not considered responsible for the crash.
What did they do about it?
Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, often seen as the face of Virgin Trains, left his holiday in Switzerland to visit the accident scene, talking to gathered media about the incident with emotion, emphasising the train driver’s role as a hero. Meanwhile, the communications team seeded positive press stories about the robust train design to reassure future passengers.
What should they have done?
Virgin Trains has been widely praised for its handling of the situation. However, the brand admits many of its staff and stakeholders heard about the crash from the media before the company’s central control base. This was due to a BBC executive being on the train – the news got out before the communications team could co-ordinate and put out a statement.
Virgin Trains has a crisis response procedure that is practised at least every six months. It involves heavy use of social media to confirm any incidents, followed by online travel alerts then media statements. The on-call procedure was revised to ensure no gap would occur in communications during a time when staff would be travelling to the office.
Chris Lewis, chief executive officer, LEWIS PR
When handling a crisis, you need to engage both left and right hemispheres of your brain. Crisis management is a task of two halves. The planning half is an activity for the left side of the brain: logical, thorough, procedural. While the action half – the part that comes into play if a crisis happens – uses the instinct and intuition of the right.
A crisis plan can help you avoid an emergency altogether. A good corporation spends time worrying about events that may never happen. If your board isn’t worried about potential crises, it isn’t doing its job properly. This matters long before any communications strategy comes into play.
Companies should have “probability trees” laid out, which help them plan what are most likely to become problems, so disasters can be avoided.
It can also help if the organisation involved in a crisis is already both aspirant and transparent. I see the reaction to companies caught in emergencies as reflective of their “resting” [or non-crisis] state. So, if people already have goodwill towards a brand, as in the recent case of Virgin Trains, they will give the organisation the benefit of the doubt when a crisis strikes. But with the banks, people feel those companies had years of raking it in before they received so much bad publicity, so it’s no surprise people are upset.
Boards also need to have an open dialogue with the communications team so they can plan. Take Barclays, for example. There were headlines about its tax avoidance loopholes on the same day that Occupy London protesters were removed from their camp. If the communications team had been kept in the loop, they could have avoided this type of crisis.
A crisis response should always be the last resort for any company. Social media means that brands need to move fast, which means being able to assess the situation quickly and trust your instincts. Chief executives and finance directors are used to dealing with slower moving areas, such as law and accountancy, so when a crisis blows up on Twitter, it can be bewildering. But having an established monitoring and response routine in place can help ensure it becomes second nature.
A crisis doesn’t need to be fatal if handled correctly. By merging left-brained planning skills with right-brained instinct, brands can mitigate the effects and move forward on a positive note.