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A lesson in crisis comms from Alton Towers

The events at Alton Towers just over a week ago were horrifying, partly because anyone who’s been on a rollercoaster has had the little nag at the back of their mind about what happens if something goes wrong. I suppose that’s part of the appeal.

Of course, as is the norm now, there were moving images of the immediate aftermath taken on a cameraphone, complete with screaming victims. Then came the start of piecing together the timeline (of which there will be much more in coming months) which started throwing around suggestions that it took so many minutes for park staff to call 999 and then so many more minutes for the Ambulance Service to call the Fire Service. It’s all very easy to second guess the reality of being in that kind of situation. But I digress.

As I sit here now I’m listening to 5 Live reporting that one of the teenage victims of the crash has had a leg amputated above the knee and you might wonder how much worse this could get for Alton Towers and its corporate masters at Merlin Entertainment.

Yet just seconds after the report of the suffering of a young girl whose life has changed forever came an update on the park re-opening for the first time today. The reporter on the scene had done vox pop interviews with guests which were hugely telling.

In short, those people would have been perfectly willing to get on The Smiler (not that it was open). Perhaps not keen to be on its first run… but as one young lady pointed out, like after an air crash, now is probably the safest time after all the checks have been done and the staff are super-vigilant. Another chap was phlegmatic, trusting in the millions-to-one statistics recently quoted about how likely you are to be hurt on a roller coaster.

Alton Towers has won plaudits in recent days for its handling of the affair. It will be a case study in months to come of how to ‘do’ a crisis. The management got right out in front of it, led by the CEO and avoiding any mealy-mouthed spin aimed solely at getting the gates open and the cash flowing again as soon as possible. They accepted the reality that a sensible pause was called for while thorough safety checks were made. The comms team talked calmly and openly to everyone on social media.

When things go wrong and the media is reporting on you because of some calamity or failing, it’s easy for business leaders to feel that the world is falling in and it will be the end of their service, product or brand. The reality is that if you do the right thing, communicate clearly and honestly and accept the blame where it is genuinely your fault, people will forgive you pretty much anything including, apparently, the maiming of young people.

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