P&O Ferries spokesperson and crisis manager Chris Laming is at the epicenter of the public relations disaster following the disappearance of ferry passenger Richard Fearnside.
After 31 year-old Richard went missing from the P&O Pride of Kent, his mother Marianne Fearnside wrote to P&O Ferries to ask what happened to her son and to complain that the ferry company did not have closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras on its ships. The chief executive officer of the ferry company tasked Mr. Laming with writing a letter back to the grieving mother.
In a time of crisis a cruise line’s reputation, and its relationship with the families of killed or missing passengers, are often formed not by the circumstances which caused the crisis but by the company’s attitude, appearance, and action afterwords.
I call this the "three A’s" of cruise line crisis management: attitude, appearance & action. When disaster strikes and passengers are killed or disappear during a vacation cruise, the public has a remarkable capacity to forgive the company involved – provided it takes a few basic steps not to make matters worse.
In practical terms, people understand that accidents are inevitable. "Sh*t happens," the saying goes. An individual or company can be forgiven if they demonstrate a humble and respectful attitude; they appear on the scene and appear to take stock of the problems they caused; and they take prompt action to prevent others from suffering a similar fate.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But most cruise lines and ferry operators don’t seem to have a clue what to do in a time of crisis. Many companies do the opposite of what they should do. They demonstrate an obnoxious attitude. They try and disappear from public scrutiny and disavow responsibility. They act defensively and take no steps to prevent the event from occurring again.
Bad or malicious PR can infuriate families of the victims and cause them to dedicate their lives to requiring cruise lines and ferry companies to act responsibly.
I’m not sure what P&O crisis manager Chris Laming was thinking when he wrote back to Richard’s mother. His letter consisted of just seven sentences. You’d think that a PR professional for ferry companies for 27 years could string together a few sincere sounding pleasantries to acknowledge the grief of a mother who lost her child, together with choice action phrases suggesting that the company would be conducting a full investigation with an eye toward learning lessons from the mishap and possibly implementing safety improvements to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.
Just two weeks ago, I complemented P&O Ferries who did the right thing when it transported a morbidly obese young man from Dover to Calais by ferry. Cunard and British Airways had refused him passage from the U.S. because of his weight (500 lbs). Virgin Airways flew him to the U.K. and then P&O helped him reach France where he lives. Mr. Laming had issued a very compassionate statement on P&O’s behalf: "It’s difficult to imagine the frustration that this gentleman has gone through. But for us, it’s very straightforward as we are set up to carry people who have medical needs."
P&O’s letter to Mrs. Fearnside, however, contained no hint of compassion or sympathy and no illusion that the company would be taking the matter seriously with an eye toward remedial action. There was nothing sounding like "please-accept-our-sincerest-condolences-for-the-loss-of-your-son" type of thing. P&O’s attitude (the first "A" in crisis management) was all wrong. The letter contained nothing polite, conciliatory or respectful.
But the last couple of sentences were worse. Mr. Laming wrote:
"It would not be physically possible to cover all of the open deck spaces with CCTV, or monitor such cameras 24 hours a day, or make and retain recordings in perpetuity."
He concluded his letter stating ". . . we do not consider that anything more could have been done in the circumstances."
Later, when local newspapers in the U.K. began to cover the story, Mr. Laming explained why P&O refused to consider installing CCTV cameras on open passenger decks to prevent and assist in responding to man overboard situations:
"It is so rare. It is just not practical to consider doing this."
I have seen many PR managers at cruise lines make these type of statements to try and get out of a tight spot. "We have carried millions of passengers and nothing like this has ever happened before. We are the safest way to travel. Overboard passengers are ultra-rare. Our ships are safe. We are going to continue to sail without any changes." And so forth and so on.
Statements like this are usually false. (P&O has a history of unexplained man overboard cases). Plus these type of statements eventually make the cruise or ferry company look like they are hiding something. The "it’s rare" defense just invites people, like me, to begin to investigate how many times similar incidents have in fact occurred. Invariably, the public learns that man overboards are hardly rare and occur with alarming frequency. The end result is that the ferry companies lose credibility and invite public scorn.
Mr. Laming has defended ferry companies in the court of public opinion before. According to his resume poster on LinkedIn, a year after he became the public relation officer for Townsend Thoresen / P&O European Ferries in 1986, the ferry line experienced one of the worse public relation disasters imaginable.
In 1987, the Herald of Free Enterprise was sailing a route between Dover and Zeebrugge in Belgium. The ferry carried 459 passengers, 80 crew members, 81 cars, 3 buses and 47 trucks. Within minutes after leaving its berth in Zeebrugge’s harbor, the ferry began taking on massive amounts of water. The ship began to list. It lost all power and electricity, leaving the passengers in darkness. The ferry then capsized. 193 people died due to drowning or hypothermia in the icy cold waters.
Mr. Laming responded to the disaster on the cruise line’s behalf. He told newspaper reporters words to the effect that the ship was safe and this was just an isolated, freak accident. He was quoted in a London newspaper article entitled "Disaster Cause Unknown" saying that the ferry company’s fleet of three ships of this class had carried "millions and millions of people without any mishap . . . Our ships will continue in service, and this, as far as we are concerned, was a tragic, one-oft incident."
But the ferry line knew exactly what had happened and also knew that at least one similar incident had happened before. A subsequent public inquiry revealed that the ship’s giant bow doors (which open to permit trucks and cars to drive on ramps into the ship) had been negligently left open when the ferry left the port in Belgium. Incredibly, an assistant boatswain responsible for closing the doors had fallen asleep in his cabin. A ship officer, who duty was to stay on deck to make sure that the bow doors were closed, left his post. Another boatswain who was the last person on the car deck, testified that he did not close the doors because it was not his job. The captain did not verify that the doors were closed. There were no alarms in place to signal that the doors were open. The ferry line thought that it was frivolous to spend money on equipment to indicate if employees had failed to do their job correctly.
The official investigation also revealed that the ferry line suffered from a "disease of sloppiness" and "negligence at every level of the corporation’s hierarchy." The investigation showed a major problem with the ferry ship itself. The ship did not have any watertight compartments; any flooding would allow water to flow the length of the ship. This was revealed in a similar prior incident when in 1983, the ferry’s sister ship Pride of Free Enterprise had sailed from Dover to Zeebrugge with the bow doors open. Its assistant boatswain also fell asleep in that incident as well. You can read the official report of the disaster here.
Survivors of the disaster are still grieving and traumatized today.
The disaster lead to substantial changes in the rules and regulations pertaining to ferries of this type.
What Mr. Laming told reporters about the Herald of Free Enterprises two and one-half decades ago was the opposite of the truth. There were deadly design flaws in the ferry; there had been prior problems with a boatswain asleep on the job and sailing with open doors; and there had been at least one essentially identical problem with a sister ship sailing between Dover and Zeebrugge.
So here we are 26 years later. The ferry line’s crisis manager is telling essentially the same PR story to the public. Don’t worry. We’re safe. There’s nothing wrong with our ships. Passenger overboards are "so rare." Its "not practical" to invest in CCTV equipment for safety reasons, he says.
But PR statements like this won’t work if the public has a healthy dose of skepticism and takes a hard look at a company’s actual safety record. How many other passengers will be lost at sea because P&O thinks its frivolous to invest in CCTV cameras and automatic man overboard alarms?
Follow the story on Ms. Fearnside’s Facebook page. After receiving P&O’s letter, she started a petition to require ferry operators like P&O Ferries to install CCTV cameras. Over 80,000 have signed the petition so far. Click here and sign the petition. Also please leave a comment if you have a thought about this issue or join the discussion on our Facebbok page.
Photo Top: P&O Ferries’ Chris Laming – LinkedIn
Photo Bottom: Herald Of Free Enterprises – BBC