Leading Article: Fighting them on the beaches

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The Independent Online
In the public relations industry it's called "crisis management": the art of tackling a publicity nightmare without sinking the company. This week Stena Sealink, though patchy on navigational skills, has provided a compass bearing or two in this most high-wire of the PR person's arts. Responsible for stranding a ferry and nearly 250 passengers on a Calais beach for 25 hours, the company has emerged relatively unscathed.

The company's management appears to have learnt a few lessons from rivals. Take, for example, the 1987 sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise in Zeebrugge harbour. The death of 193 people was disastrous in every sense. It was, however, compounded by television interviews of the company's top executive, fresh off his holiday flight and dressed in his flowery Hawaiian shirt, who seemed to have little idea of what to do. Then there was the recent cruise through hell on the QEII during which first-class passengers paid pounds 7,400 for the privilege of being woken at 8am by a man with a Black and Decker drill. For weeks the press was full of horror stories from complaining, poorly compensated passengers for whom Cunard's silver service is now forever tarnished. More recently, our private-sector- bound railway got into an awful communications tangle when a piece of farm machinery fell on to the west coast main line.

Stena Sealink had some good fortune on its side: no one was injured when the Challenger ran aground. And a beached cross-Channel passenger is less likely to demand to see the captain than a QEII cruiser with no cherry in his Singapore Sling. The management also had a well-prepared plan. This was immediately to make a senior spokesperson available to the media, to explain, to apologise, and to promise to discover what had gone wrong.

Crucially, Stena Sealink treated passengers royally, once staff got over their initial surprise at what had happened. The expert PR advice is to estimate what aggrieved parties expect and then to exceed it; easier, of course, if the demand is a free meal than to clean up 100 miles of oily coastline. That way you take the steam out of people's anger. So the company fed and watered the passengers for free and each lorry driver received a bottle of Scotch. Mobile phones were supplied, enabling passengers to reassure their families. A free return trip was offered. Finally, the company promised compensation tailored to individual needs.

Engineering good public relations is, of course, more than merely spreading goodwill. It's also about manipulation. So the press was carefully prevented from contacting passengers until the last stages of the drama. By the time journalists got to them, anger had been soothed.

The result? In a few months, most people will have forgotten this episode. All of which is a success story for the public relations people. But it is also a mark of fierce competition on the Channel route, which has transformed services. Thanks mainly to today's commercial war above and below the Channel, no company dares leave its customers high and dry.