Archive for April, 2010

The Catholic church and Ryan Air make more mistakes

I’ve deliberately avoided commenting on the Icelandic volcano crisis – because it would have kept me occupied 24 hours a day, and because so many commentators were having their say. It would have been impossible to know who to comment on and when.

As I see it, the authorities overseeing the situation and determining whether and when airlines could return to the skies had to take an exceptionally cautious view. They explained why they were so cautious and gave regular bulletins, giving airlines some chance to cancel flights and warn passengers of the implications. If they had been less cautious, and there had been a tragic incident, they would have been vilified for being reckless.

They were right to play safe; the reccies run by airlines were risky. The BA test flight, with Willie Walsh on board, stayed well below the normal flight path and well out of the way of the ash – but they kept quiet about that. It was a PR stunt designed to bolster Willie Walsh’s reputation and investor confidence. It may yet prove to have provided a false sense of security. Tonight, one plane bringing back stranded passengers has been affected by ash. The story is not over.

Meanwhile, today two organisations spoke about crises affecting them. Did they get it right?

The Catholic church continues to shirk its responsibilities

The Catholic church has come out with a fulsome apology to everyone who suffered sexual abuse by its priests. So that’s sorted that, then. Well, no. Apologising is essential, of course, but it is not enough. Organisations need to say what they will do to prevent whatever has happened from happening again. They then need to make sure they do what they say they will – and report on it. Did we have any indication today of what the Catholic church is going to do to mitigate the risks of it happening again? Not a squeak beyond a bland statement that they will do something.

The reality is that sexual abuse of children is highly likely to happen again – in the Catholic church, in any church – in any place where children gather together. People who are at risk of abusing children cannot help being drawn to children in situations where abuse could be possible, so drawn to them they will be. I am of the view that they are not evil; there are deep-seated psychological reasons for their behaviour and they need extensive professional treatment to understand and then overcome the impulses that drive them. Some may never be able to achieve this and they will need to be kept away from temptation. But others will – with the right professional support.  Of course I wish it were otherwise but the facts are the facts.

So the issue the Catholic church ought to have spoken about is what it is going to do to minimise the risks to children – and what it is going to do to help perpetrators, or indeed potential perpetrators, to stop. Saying sorry without backing it up with a plan of action is futile and fools no one.

Ryan Air retracts

Michael O’Leary of Ryan Air popped up on screen and radio to issue a new statement, desperately trying to rectify his earlier rigid stance about what the company would pay stranded passengers in compensation for cancelled flights due to volcanic ash. Having already annoyed passengers, and come across as mean-spirited to the rest of us, he now has an uphill battle to convince us that they will be fair if things go wrong when we travel.

It is essential to anticipate reactions, explore the what-ifs, look at all the angles. His first response – that financial compensation would be limited to the value of the ticket – was clearly made with only one thing in mind: the business’s bottom line. This is short termism of the worst kind.

It is a fact that the damage done to a business’s reputation in a crisis far outweighs the cost of recovering from it. Businesses need to spend their way out of crises.

O’Leary discovered this too late – and will now need to spend much more on rebuilding the company’s reputation than if he had simply taken a fair approach from the start. Even now, he has not been entirely clear, insisting that compensation claims will be looked at on a case by case basis. That sounds as if it has the potential to create even more bad feeling among already disgruntled passengers – and you can bet your sweet bippy that some of them will talk to the media, criticising the company publicly for months to come. This will prolong the crisis and damage the business even further.

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Polish air crash: risking reputations

Today’s tragedy in Russia is unprecedented. Three things strike me. First, did the Polish government anticipate that such a crisis might occur, and prepare what to do and what to say in its aftermath? Secondly, how hard it must be for the families of ordinary passengers who were killed in the crash (in this case, the crew) when so much publicity and talk is about the deaths of government and military leaders. Thirdly, the situation is instantly complicated when there are rivalries or tensions between those involved: Poland and Russia.

Russia’s Putin appeared very swiftly, the impact of the tragedy etched on his face, taking control of the investigation. Good move. Meanwhile, the Russian flight control centre was swift to condemn the crew, by which they mean the pilots, for allegedly ignoring advice to divert and land elsewhere – presumably to place the blame firmly on Poland. Not a good move.

We in the UK must, I hope, have a crisis management plan in the event of major politicians and leaders being killed at the same time. There are several occasions a year when they are gathered together – or, at least, when significant groups of them are together. And, as most of them will be significant events – the state opening of parliament, the Mansion House speech, visits from foreign heads of state, royal weddings and funerals – security will be intense and massive, reducing the risk of a catastrophe. I hope there are rules about how many of them fly together, to minimise those risks – as with the monarch who never flies in the same plane as the heir to the throne, as with the US president and vice-president who are not allowed to fly together, and as with corporates where, typically, no more than two key leaders travel together precisely to ensure that the business can be run if those leaders were to be involved or killed in an accident.

I hope whatever plan we have takes into account the need to stress that the lives of ordinary people affected by any incident matter just as much – and to keep emphasising the point. The effect on and the grief of their family and friends must be recognised.

As for allegations about the pilots ignoring instructions, it is unusual for any facts about a crash to be known so soon afterwards. Typically, the black box needs to be analysed before facts emerge. If the comments are an attempt to shift blame … tut, tut, tut. And how might it make the pilots’ family and friends feel, perhaps unnecessarily? What might it do to the relationship between Russia and Poland if the black box reveals otherwise? And how will that affect Russia’s standing in the world? It’s far too early to assume that anything is fact.

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