Crisis PR: How Merlin should respond to the Alton Towers Smiler crash

Jane Wilson is a communication and reputation consultant. She is a former chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations

In the immediate aftermath of the terrible accident this week at Alton Towers, its divisional director made an error of judgement in saying that safety on rollercoasters isn’t a major issue. I’m sure what he meant was that it shouldn’t be, but this comment and his lack of knowledge of previous faults that day suggested he had rushed to speak to the media before being properly briefed.

Since that early small misstep the company is now demonstrating textbook issues response handling. However, as the park remains closed and the share price has yet to recover from the almost 10 per cent drop since the incident, the outcome of the next few days is critical to its reputational recovery. Here are five things it needs to continue to focus on:

Trust

People are happy to be hurtled around a track at high speed because they put their trust in well-known trusted names like Alton Towers to ensure their safety. That trust has been dented not only by this incident but with other issues with the £18million Smiler ride.

The challenge now is to demonstrate that this trust has not been misplaced and is deserved in the future. To do this, Alton Towers must reassure on its commitment to safety.

Safety

Safety is at the core of its licence to operate. Alton Towers has put its co-operation with HSE at the heart of its communication so far and has made the right call in closing the whole park until it learns more from the investigation. Safety before profit has to be a key message that will show it can put its money where its mouth is.

The more it is able to demonstrate its commitment to safety and the reasons behind the crash, the better the positive impact on their reputation for safety and the likelihood of full recovery.

Transparency

Demonstrating what they are doing and the findings of their investigation is key so they should be open with the media and all interested stakeholders on what they are doing, with what agencies and when.

Frequency and tone

The bedfellow of transparency is frequency. Alton Towers needs to ensure that the media and its other stakeholders know when to expect updates and how they will get them. The communication doesn’t have to be constant but it has to live up to expectations of timeliness and frequency.

Today, the story has moved on from the corporate to the personal with the first people leaving hospital, so the communication from Alton Towers has to respond to events as they unfold, particularly as there are likely to be more personal tragedy stories emerging.

Responsibility

And the final issue that will be of huge interest to the company, the media and the victims is responsibility. HSE is currently carrying out a full investigation into the accident to ascertain the cause and liability. Depending on the result, and also the outcome of unconfirmed speculation over a victim losing a limb, park owner Merlin should consider its CEO as the primary spokesperson who will take ultimate corporate responsibility.

Responsibility and liability will potentially have a huge impact on share price, reputation and potential damages ad as we’ve seen from the recent Thomas Cook case, how a leader responds to the issue of responsibility can overshadow every other area. Key advice is not to let the lawyers over-ride the communications advice at all times.

Jane Wilson is managing director, corporate affairs at MHP Communications

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