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PR Problems

By The Drum, Administrator

February 10, 2005 | 14 min read

Front-page news

When it opened it was billed as a contender to become the eighth wonder of the world – well almost. When Glasgow Science Centre’s Tower opened its lift shafts it was the only fully rotating tower of its kind in the world. Four years on, and a number of high profile catastrophes later, it appears that there is a reason the Tower is one of a kind.

The Science Tower has had a chequered history since its official launch in 2001. The official opening of the tower was delayed in 2001 when a group of visitors got stuck in a lift. The structure was then closed completely in 2002 due to a problem with the Tower’s bearings. After experts had apparently solved all of the Tower’s technical problems the next hitch came when bosses at the Science Centre discovered that they had failed to secure an Entertainment Licence for the venue. Oops.

Now, the latest disaster saw ten people, including four children, stuck halfway up the 340ft structure after a lift cable snapped. Firemen battled for five hours to rescue them by cutting a hole in the stranded lift car and carrying them all to safety.

However, the Science Tower’s reputation remains on shaky ground. We invited three PR consultancies to offer their thoughts on how marketing chiefs at the Glasgow Science Centre should handle the Tower’s reputation going forward.

Malcolm Brown, director, Harrison Cowley

1. How would you have handled the crisis PR on the afternoon of the problem?

It’s not so much a case of how you would have handled the PR on that afternoon but more what systems were already in place, and the state of readiness of your pre-prepared crisis PR plan.

A well-prepared crisis PR plan literally covering every potential scenario would be absolutely vital in dealing with this situation. As the broken lift situation was literally unfolding in front of the media there would by no hiding place. We would have our own incident room, either within the Science Centre or the nearby Moat House hotel, to give us space and privacy when required. We would be liaising on a continual basis with the emergency services that in these situations have first say in what is released to the media. We would work hand in hand with them to ensure total accuracy of statements.

At least one member of our staff would be highly visible to both the emergency services and the media. We have to be available to negate speculation and to provide background information through already prepared notes. We would ensure that the most senior member of the management team from the Science Centre was there – visible and ready to do interviews if required.

We would also have a series of statements, both fresh and pre-written, either giving background or updating the situation as it progressed. At ALL times while the people are still trapped this would be our ONLY concern. Only after they are rescued do we start looking at causes/investigations, etc.

Golden rule – in the early days of the situation be open, honest and transparent. From the crisis plan, update and develop your questions and answers on this type of scenario. Make sure that you do not contradict or step on toes of emergency services.

2. What measures would you have taken to ensure that the problem was contained and that the media coverage was as controlled as possible?

In many respects we have answered this question with our answers to number one. If the media are starved of information they will speculate. Therefore it is vital to keep them as well-informed as is possible within the limits of an ongoing emergency. However, as we now know the media did speculate. They concentrated on ‘the ill-fated tower’ and the fact that the people in the lift could have plunged to their death if an emergency brake had not worked.

Part of our crisis plan would have featured an expert on this type of lift/tower. The key is that the fail-safe measures did work. The brake did come on. The lift did not plunge to the ground. Therefore we would have had our expert saying this, e.g. Mr Expert said: “Unfortunately as anyone who lives or works in a building where they have to use lifts knows, breakdowns can sometimes happen. We fully realise being stranded in a lift is not a pleasant experience. However, ALL the fail safe measures within the lift worked perfectly and did their job performing to the highest standards of health and safety.”

Once everyone had been taken safely from the lift, in association with the emergency services we would have taken them back inside the Science Centre for a proper de-briefing, and also to prepare them for potential press questions. We would have offered them a very personal apology at this stage. We would have told them, first, that an immediate investigation had been launched and that we would be contacting them individually to discuss their ordeal.

Again in association with emergency services we would then give an approved statement to the media along the lines of, “First, we are pleased to say that everyone has now been rescued and are safe and unharmed. We would like to apologise to them for this ordeal and we would like to praise them for remaining calm throughout the situation. We would also like to praise the emergency services for the highly professional way they carried out the rescue. We can confirm that an immediate investigation has been launched and when the results of this are known they will be made public. In the meantime the tower will remain closed, however, the Science Centre itself will remain open.”

3. If you were the PR consultant in charge of the Science Centre, what strategy would you now put in place to change people’s perceptions of the ill-fated tower and put its past behind it?

Unfortunately, this will be dictated by the outcome of the investigation into why this situation happened. This is key to the whole strategy going forward. What if they can’t find what caused the problem; what if experts say it could happen again; or it was human error; or even that it was the fault of one of the passengers. If it was anything like this, it’s not so much a case of re-marketing the tower but more a case of ensuring that the rest of the Science Centre is able to distance itself from the tower – it remains open, it is still popular, etc. Therefore our strategy would be based on the outcome of that investigation. If it re-opens then it’s all about winning back confidence – two-for-one offers to the Science Centre and Tower; school visits; personality endorsements; media day, etc. A day especially set aside for the emergency services and their families as a big thank you.

4. What other marketing techniques would you employ to help change perceptions and encourage people back into the tower?

This obviously depends on budget. But as a starter: joint promotional activity with radio and newspapers; advertising; new mail shots to schools and local businesses. Work hand in hand with tourist authorities. All designed to say, ‘It’s business as usual’.

Katherine McCudden, Director, Bright PR

The Glasgow Science Centre Tower will certainly be a PR challenge over the coming days, months and years, particularly for Glaswegians who have now faced the fourth embarrassing halt to what is heralded as Scotland’s tallest freestanding building, a world design first, a must see attraction for all.

All these messages seem now in tatters as recent headlines reveal “Tower of Terror” “Ten trapped in 440ft tower’s lift” – the stuff of PR nightmares. The Chief Executive, Kirk Ramsay’s final quote, “Everyone is fit and healthy and we are pleased to say the contingency plan we put together worked well.” True, no one was hurt but the short and long term damage to the tower’s reputation has still to be measured.

Given that the management of the media on the day was handled well, speaking as an interested observer who caught various news bulletins last Saturday, what of the future PR strategy ?

Remember the extent of the coverage from Saturday is a direct result of past PR, engineering and management crises. Any other lift breakdown in a public building would not have such attention. The rule of PR in a crisis is to acknowledge that every other negative story ever published about your company or organisation will be brought back to haunt you. This is why the management of the media at a crisis is so important. The media will use the past to expand the story - I am not planning to do the same.

Instead, lets explore some recommendations for the future:

ï Conduct an immediate communications audit amongst all target visitors and influencers. Then you have real issues to tackle not guessed perceptions.

ï www.glasgowsciencecentre.org will be receiving more hits following a crisis than at any other time – use it!

ï Where on earth is the news page about all the great things happening at the Science Centre in general? The Tower is only a part of the Science Centre and therefore should be positioned in context to all the marvellous activity therein, along with the IMAX. My focus on PR activity for the next year would be to maximise every positive activity related to the Centre in as creative a way as possible and even if the media get sick of your photocalls and educational news stories, at least every single word and picture should be published on the website and anywhere else you can manage.

ï Establish the facts surrounding the latest incident. Have a well thought through article by an independent expert immediately available on the website focussing on the engineering fact that at no time were the people in the lift going to crash to the ground (from my limited research, lift design now makes this impossible even if it still happens in the movies). And of course indicate some kind of expectation of opening even if it is a year from now – do not hide!

ï The website’s copy regarding the tower is desperately unexciting and lacking in fun – as a tourist attraction it is listed only as a Science Centre building surely it’s more than that!

ï Define the tower from now on as ‘an engineering prototype celebrating its innovative new design which has borne a natural series of modifications in its goal to become a spectacular Glasgow icon’. Instead of focussing on Tower exclusively, reveal in an educational manner many other worldwide risk taking ventures which are now monuments of wonder e.g. Eiffel Tower to Forth Rail Bridge both of which witnessed far more health and safety issues and many deaths than we will ever face with the Glasgow Tower.

ï Introduce the senior management and engineering team at the Science centre as a whole to the media as experts on a range of related topics for all science education and tourist attraction matters.

ï Invite Glasgow to name the Tower. Get the Glasgow people on your side – we love nicknames for buildings e.g. The Armadillo, the “Heilanman's Umbrella” .

ï Who is the tower aimed at and will they ever be persuaded to ride the tower again? Definitely, I know for a fact that this incident will not deter my three sons, aged 12, 10 and 5, from dragging me up Scotland’s tallest free standing structure again. So by exploiting a strategy to its full, and specifically targeting the family tourist market from Scotland, the rest of the UK and abroad, I know that Glaswegians will be proud of this world engineering first, a local and international success in the long term.

Remember the lessons of the past – The Glasgow Garden Festival in 1988 ended in loss of the fireworks director’s leg in an accidental explosion on the very last night of the Festival – front page in all the nationals the next day and still we look back on one of Scotland’s most successful attractions in our lifetime. Even the Scottish Parliament building is slowly gaining local recognition for its stunning risk taking design and not just the money pit which it had become in the minds of the nation.

One thing is sure, public relations strategy and scrupulous enthusiastic implementation will play a huge part in the Tower’s future success.

Graeme Jack, managing Director UK regions, trimedia

The old adage about the tallest tree always getting the most buffeting from the wind certainly holds true in a media sense for the Glasgow Science Centre. And with the Glasgow Tower, the centre certainly has a very tall tree.

As an observer and occasional visitor with experience of reputation management and brand building, it’s interesting to watch the words ‘troubled’ or ‘controversial’ being used by media before the words ‘Glasgow Science Centre’.

Management there must be irritated at best, particularly when they know that they have a fantastic product, and in the tower itself, an icon of the new Glasgow.

So what now?

Short-term, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if visitor numbers have been boosted by all of the coverage around the recent issue with the lift on the tower.

It certainly brought the facility to the attention of my eight-year-old. He has been pestering me relentlessly to take him up to the top of the tower since he saw it on Reporting Scotland.

He wants to know how it feels to be at the top of a tower seeing the whole of Glasgow, and the almost negligible chance that there could be the added excitement of a lift breaking down makes it even better.

And that, surely, is the key.

Kids, and their long suffering parents, are motivated to participate in a leisure experience that makes them feel good. Kids have a great time, and parents are pleased that their kids are having a great time.

So, to put distance between the media storm surrounding the lift issue, and the future success of the Science Centre, there is huge merit in the PR (1) focusing on the product, and (2) focusing on how the product makes you feel.

It makes sense for the PR, advertising and other marketing activity to be working hard together to the same end. Advertising works, and PR activity extends impact by getting the Science Centre into different parts of the paper.

And experiential PR – which excites the imagination by conveying to readers, listeners or viewers a sense of how it actually feels to be at the top of the Glasgow Tower, in the best seat at the IMAX, or finding out how things work in the Science Centre itself – undoubtedly carries the most impact.

And the issues management PR activity?

Our experience at Trimedia is that reputation is protected to a great extent by constantly assessing risk, and, where possible, being positive and proactive about dealing with that risk.

In practical terms, this means spotting potential issues, scenario planning, and having that plan reviewed to ensure that it is always current.

Where a problem is starting to emerge, the nettle must be grasped, and the problem conveyed positively and assertively to media, together with the actions being taken by the organisation to address the problem.

Over the longer term, work also needs to be done with the media to manage expectation.

It is perfectly fair and legitimate to take the line that the Science Centre, particularly the Glasgow Tower, is one of the most adventurous, imaginative architectural structures in the UK.

And Glasgow had the balls to go for it, despite the doubters. But with a decision to go for flair rather than convention comes a small element of risk.

But that doesn’t make it the wrong decision.

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