Crisis communications lessons from P&O Ferries

P&O ferry crisis communications
Image via RMT.

As a crisis communications consultant and trainer I’m always looking for new examples of best practice and worst practice. Today, the diabolical behaviour of P&O Ferries and DP World has provided perhaps the worst example of how to treat employees I’ve ever seen in 30+ years of doing crisis communications and issues management.

I’m usually a huge critic of ‘armchair critics’ when it comes to ‘PR crises’. There’s always a flurry of armchair critics eager to highlight their crisis communications ‘expertise’ to call out what’s gone wrong, when in reality they know nothing about what’s really happening internally. A storm of negative social media or bad media coverage doesn’t necessarily mean it has been badly handled. You need to know what the actual business objective was to be able to judge the success or otherwise, and we rarely know that.

However, the P&O Ferries debacle is different. There can’t be any excuse or explanation for what has happened today. P&O, or Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company as it was once known, has a proud history dating back to the early 19th century (naval historians or Wikipedia can tell you more, that’s what I can remember). It has damaged its reputation and proud history in one foul act.

Let’s recap what happened. First P&O issued an ambiguous statement.

This made it sound like the company was about to go into liquidation. However, a company spokesperson quickly corrected that mistaken assumption, but without clarifying quite what was happening.

It’s a rumour, so the real news doesn’t sound as bad

Then rumours surfaced that P&O Ferries was about to fire all of its staff and replace them with cheaper agency workers. My initial thought is that this was so outrageous, so diabolical, that what the company was really do was circulating an awful rumour so that when the real news emerged it didn’t seem as bad. It’s a tactic that has been used numerous times before.

However, I was wrong, and P&O Ferries really was that diabolical. In fact, the reality was even worse. Because it knew how wrong its actions were, it actually planned its brutality in advance. It hired “handcuff trained” security guards clad in balaclavas to conceal their identities to forcibly remove workers from ships.

I say P&O Ferries, but wonder how much say its management actually had in the decision, and how much was decided by its parent company, DP World in Dubai? DP World is part of ‘Dubai Inc’ the Royal family/state owned entity that control’s Dubai’s wealth and has been buying up assets all around the world. P&O Ferries’ leadership might have argued against it. If it did it failed, and you’ve got to question why it decided to remain in place and implement the decision. Or maybe I’m giving them credit, where it isn’t due and the P&O Ferries leadership team actually is this diabolical.

Even if we put aside how barbaric it is to sack an entire workforce to replace it with cheaper people, then the way P&O Ferries did it is worse than anything I’ve ever seen in 30+ years of crisis communications and issues management.

The ambiguous, incomprehensible tweet this morning.

A pre-recorded video with a total absence of humanity or empathy.

Hiring thugs (not sure how else you can describe handcuff wielding men in balaclava helmets) to forcibly remove loyal workers from ships.

None of these things are things that would have been done had the company been listening to professional public relations or communications advice.

What could P&O Ferries have done differently?

You cannot talk your way out of something you behaved yourself into.

Versions of this can be cited to various people, including Stephen Covey and Tony Langham.

We don’t know what other options P&O Ferries and its parent DP World explored. Maybe this was the only option, although I very much doubt it. But if was a justifiable decision, then the reasons and facts should have been communicated.

I recall listening to a speech by Alastair Campbell where he explained people can be a lot more reasonable than you might expect. But for people to be reasonable you’ve got to give them reasons to be.

Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.

Explain your decision. Provide facts to support it. Show some empathy and that you thought it was a heartbreaking, tortuous decision.

P&O Ferries/DP World has done none of these things.

The message is crudely – business is tough, so wham bam you’re fired.

The message that business is tough isn’t even credible given some of the facts that are in the public domain.

DP World has money to burn on Formula 1 and golf

In April 2020, DP World paid a £270 million dividend to private shareholders, despite the fact that British taxpayers were subsidising its workforce by first forking out millions in furlough payments and then even more as part of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. It even begged the government for even more of our money from a taxpayer fund to support ferry operators and keep routes to the Continent open.

Its mega-rich Dubai owners also have wealth enough to splash millions on sponsoring Formula One racing as sponsor of the Renault F1 team and golf’s 2022 European Tour. We can but hope that Renault and the European Tour will show leadership and moral fibre by telling DP World that its tainted money isn’t welcome.

In sharp contrast to the bungled communications of P&O Ferries and DP World, the RMT trade union has been swift to react, as have individual employees, from captains to shipworkers.

The captain of the Pride of Hull is reported to have made an impassioned speech to his crew saying they would remain on board and refuse to allow the thugs (‘security guards’) employed by P&O Ferries, or the police, to remove them. Sadly, while I was still writing this blog post, I discovered these heroic men and women had been forced off the ship.

Some simple things P&O Ferries could have done differently

A lot of good crisis communications is about acting as a human being and thinking about the emotional impact of what you do, what you say and how you say it.

Nothing would make P&O Ferries’ barbaric action right, but it should have at least communicated with some humanity:

  1. Communicated – actually explained what it was doing and backing it up with facts.
  2. Communicated – most people now believe P&O Ferries hates customers as those booked today weren’t allowed to travel, and future passengers have to risk sailing with an inexperienced crew.
  3. Communicated – actually spent some time thinking about its behaviour and messages to employees (the people most directly impacted are always the most important stakeholder), and other stakeholders – customers, government etc.
  4. Don’t sack people by recorded video. It’s astounding I have to even type that one, as it should be so obvious.
  5. Don’t put statements on your website that make it clear you have contempt for your employees and customers. Not a word about the people it has sacked, or even an apology to customers:
P&O Ferries statement

It wasn’t a PR failure, it was a failure of humanity

We are inevitably going to see people describing this as a PR failure, PR disaster or a PR crisis. Let’s be crystal clear. This is not a PR failure or PR disaster. It is a failure of humanity.

The leadership of P&O Ferries or DP World shouldn’t need counsel or lessons in how to be decent or moral. These are core traits of humanity and they have quite clearly failed in their duty to be decent or moral.

The role of the public relations professional is to provide counsel to the CEO and C-suite about the reputational and relationship implications of their decisions. The CEO and and board have to balance this advice with the advice they receive from finance, legal and other professions. It is ultimately teh CEO and board’s decision.

PR professionals can’t force employers or clients to heed their expert counsel and act upon it.

If bosses or clients refuse to behave better, then it places PR professionals in an incredibly difficult position. They can either make the best of an impossible situation and communicate against their better professional instincts, or they can walk. Not everyone has the luxury of being able to walk when they need to keep a roof over the heads of their families and put food on the table.

What they can’t do is do anything that violates their duties under the respective professional codes of conduct of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations or the Public Relations Consultants Association. However, if they are forced to, then it becomes even more difficult because neither of these respected bodies is going to pay their salaries if they are fired.

But none of this takes away from the fact that this wasn’t a PR failure, it was a failure of humanity.

What do other PR professionals think?

I’ve included a few tweets where fellow PR professionals express their opinions. They are all public opinions, but if I’ve listed anyone who would prefer not to be then message me and I’m happy to remove it. I haven’t deliberately chosen to not include any tweets defending PO Ferries or DP World, it’s just that I coudn’t find any.

If you have thoughts on this or other aspects of crisis communications, then please add them to the comments.

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