On 4 Nov 2010, Qantas QF32 was forced to make an emergency landing at Singapore’s Changi International Airport after one of its Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines exploded in mid-air.
In this crisis situation, both Qantas and Rolls-Royce took the information initiative by coming forward to issue a News Release on the day of the incident. In Qantas’ case, its Chief Executive Alan Joyce attributed the incident to a “significant engine failure” and added that Qantas would suspend A380 services until they were completely confident that Qantas safety requirements had been met. In contrast, Rolls-Royce pledged to work with Qantas to identify the cause and stated that they were making progress in their investigations.
An analysis shows that Qantas was quick to divert blame for the incident by insinuating that an engine design failure caused the incident, while Rolls-Royce chose to allow the facts to speak for itself without accepting responsibility nor attempted to divert responsibility elsewhere. In a scenario where engine failure can be attributed to either design or maintenance failures, it is my assessment that Rolls-Royce’s approach was the more strategic of the two. This is because in the event that investigations reveal maintenance to be the cause, Qantas would be as trying to divert responsibility for the incident.
Thus, when the root cause of an incident is unclear, my advise to Crisis Communication Managers is to keep your initial News Release neutral. Stakeholders are demanding but not unreasonable. They understand that investigations take time and they will give you reasonable time to complete your investigations. Hence, there is no need to rush to take a position that may eventually harm your company’s brand image and reputation.
As in chess, the opening move can often determine the end game.