Know your position: playing the crisis game

In the dryland corporate world, communication responsibility is often in plain view
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By Kyle Fawkes
Crisis Communications Manager

It is the primary rule of playing for a sports team: know your position. Yet the concept rarely gets the airtime it deserves in crisis communications. Much more often, we hear from commentators who recommend aggressive strategies that seek to proactively show transparency and responsible action – good advice in many instances. Yet, it is still vital that each organisation knows its position in the ensuing crisis.

Flying in to voluntarily share information – without the consent of other parties and without understanding your position – is a sure-fired recipe to get burned.

In the dryland corporate world, communication responsibility is often in plain view. Take Boeing for example. A series of mechanical issues with their planes has initiated direct backlash against the brand. As a result, Boeing has been pulled into the spotlight and forced to address the criticism. Boeing knows it is in the position to respond, because no other parties are responsible for the fact that their planes are experiencing mechanical issues.

But the maritime industry is more complex. A single vessel may have a multitude of companies overseeing it – beneficial owners, registered owners, commercial operators, third party operators and technical managers – just to name a few. Then there are the shipyards and classification societies that manage manufacturing and quality assurance. And that’s just one vessel in peacetime conditions.

Any incident could have a plethora of responders, which may include salvage contractors, oil spill responders, industry bodies, speciality advisors, P&I clubs, hull insurers, cargo insurers, Flag State registries, coastal state governments, regional administrations, municipalities, port authorities, and many others. Deciding who will actually take the lead in communication is almost always an open-ended question – one that has come back to haunt many companies many times.

Spanish energy giant, Repsol found this out the hard way after an oil spill near their La Pampilla Refinery in Peru. Repsol immediately took it upon themselves to unilaterally classify the cause of the spill – one that involved an Italian-flagged tanker being dislodged from shore-based piping due to a “volcanic eruption” halfway around the world in Tonga. As farfetched as this sounds, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility at the time. However, that news surely shouldn’t have been shared so immediately and without Repsol consulting government investigators and the shipping company, who were actively inspecting the scene of the incident. Instead Repsol injected themselves as the de facto communicators – a strategy that rubbed many, including the Peruvian government, the wrong way and caused significant legal, regulatory, financial and reputational fallout.

But the sharing of unsolicited gossip can be even more prevalent at the micro-level: when individual employees voluntarily disclose opinions or inside information. Let’s face it, juicy news is exciting to share.

Correspondence with authorities, next of kin notifications, and “off the record” conversations with journalists are all risk points. Even if the information is accurate and sensitive to reputational risks, talking to the outside world may still place employers in an awkward position – as the “source” of information. Once that happens, the company can expect more unwanted attention as the media take advantage of an identified and accessible commentator.

Having a communications plan between your company and partners is always going to make the response smoother. But even when a crisis kicks off, continue to ask yourself: (1) Are we the right organisation to be communicating? And (2) Is it our story to tell? If the answer is no to either of these questions, then the aggressive communication ship has sailed.

But how should an organisation decide whether they are in the right place to communicate? We have a few criteria to help you make that decision:


  • Talk to the other parties – It may sound simplistic, but during a crisis, having a conversation with the other parties can be an excellent way to clear the air on who should take the lead or contribute to communicating. Weighing up business arrangements, commercial considerations, geopolitical affairs, resource capacities, and experience can help illuminate the best placed voice to talk.


  • Name brand – If your organisation’s name is visible or obviously connected to the story, then there will, understandably, be pressure on you to communicate. As such, it’s likely your organisation will be dragged into the position where you need to speak.


  • Targeted allegations – When allegations are targeted toward your organisation specifically, it will undoubtedly force action.


  • Operational involvement – When your organisation is carrying out the operational response or day to day activities for an asset incident, there is a great responsibility on you to speak as an “informed” party that knows the facts.


  • Opportunity – If your organisation sees a positive opportunity in communicating – especially if that opportunity will alleviate stress on other parties – there is nothing wrong with seizing the moment and vocalising your message.


If you find yourself in a position where you need to communicate, then it is imperative that you do so as soon as possible. But sticking your neck out doesn’t typically end well – not in a sports game and not in communications. Remember, there’s merit in being conservative.

It doesn’t mean blaming other parties or directing media attention onto others. But there is no need to actively seek the spotlight.

In a crisis, you don’t want to get caught out of position.



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