When Crisis Hits: The Tofino Boating Tragedy

November 11, 2015

When a crisis befalls an organization, as it did to Jamie’s Whaling Centre in Tofino, B.C. with the deadly capsizing of its whale-watching vessel, the organization’s tendency is to hide.

That is the worst thing to do if it hopes to survive the crisis.

To its credit, Jamie’s has been front and centre amid the October 25 tragedy.

While we won’t know the outcome of investigations into the incident for some time, from a communications perspective, this 33-year-old company appears to be doing things right so far amid this tremendously difficult situation.

The cardinal rule of crisis communications is to do just that – communicate – quickly and often, to all those affected, with sincere empathy and a message that you’re doing everything you can.

Jamie’s issued a statement the morning after the tragedy, on its website, Facebook page and Twitter account.

The statement was brief because there wasn’t much to say at that point. But it said the right things, quickly. It offered condolences to all affected, thanked first responders and First Nations that helped rescue passengers and said it was co-operating fully with the investigation. It promised to provide more details as they came in.

True to its word, the next day, it posted a statement on its website that included more specifics about the incident and the boat involved.

The day after the tragedy, company founder Jamie Bray participated in a televised news conference, at times emotional.

In the early days of a situation like this, where there are more questions than answers, victims’ families and friends, the affected community, media and the general public, are hungry for information. So the organization must be as transparent as possible.

It’s not easy. The financial and reputational stakes are high for many. Whale watching is a multi-million dollar business in B.C. The story has already hit the British media because the five people who died were British nationals. Social media means the news spreads at lightning speed.

Poor handling of a crisis can backfire, damaging a company’s reputation, sometimes irreparably, and certainly hurting its business. There is the risk of legal action after incidents involving the loss of life.

Examples of disastrous crisis management abound. There’s the BP CEO who said of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill that he wanted it to be over because “I’d like my life back”. And the CEO of the railway involved in the deadly 2013 Lac Megantic explosion said he’s “also a victim” because he’s suffered big financial losses. Cringe.

Both comments were insensitive and self-centred. The railway has gone into bankruptcy protection. The BP CEO left that position after the spill.

In Tofino, while no one knows how things will play out, Mr. Bray and his colleagues have so far handled this tragedy forthrightly and sensitively. In this kind of terrible crisis, there is no other way to do so.

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