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Business Comment

Danny Rogers on PR: Firms' rapid response to major crises


The travel industry, by its very nature, has its fair share of crises. Planes can crash land, holiday operators fail and, worse, in January this year one of its biggest cruise ships, Costa Concordia sank with tragic loss of life.

But have travel companies become any more adept at handling such calamities?

This was the topic of a heavyweight discussion at the British travel industry's biggest conference, ABTA 2012, last week in Turkey.

The panel included representatives from airlines and Kenya Tourist Board, which has had to deal with kidnapping and terrorism over the past year.

There was encouraging evidence that travel authorities have learned from past errors. Following the farcical opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5 in 2008 by BAA/British Airways – which almost led to the premature departure of BA's then fresh leader Willie Walsh – many firms have invested more in crisis planning.

So when the volcanic ash cloud brought travel to a virtual halt in 2010, the industry is now judged to have responded effectively.

But Costa Concordia is seen as a major wake-up call. Owner Carnival Corporation was simply too slow to communicate in response to the terrible events unfolding. We are told that Micky Arison, Carnival's CEO, was advised against quickly going to the scene of the crisis, which is something that leaders such as Walsh and Richard Branson have learned is an essential response.

While leadership is paramount, so is the speed of response. Travel leaders admit social media escalates the pace at which chaos and reputational damage unfold.

Russell Ison, group head of comms for Monarch, said: 'Social media affects the way we respond to a crisis using other media. If you are struggling to get a first statement out, the chances are the situation with be tweeted out already.'

And Angie Sloan, regional director for the Kenya Tourist Board, stressed how important it is to correct erroneous information put out on social media.

Worryingly, Harlan Coeb, head of crisis at Edelman, the world's biggest PR company warns: 'Despite the exponential growth of reputational risk to organisations, crisis capability has remained largely flat.'

Next week: Claire Beale on advertising