Lessons from the Alton Towers crisis

I grew up only a short drive from Alton Towers, and it’s fair to say ‘Towers’, looms large in life there: lots of my friends had summer jobs there and our 6th form leavers’ party was held on the site.

SarahFoulkesBy Sarah Foulkes, PR consultant for Media Village.

So when the news of the Smiler accident broke, I held my breath to see how the much-loved theme park would respond. After all, all the people who were riding on the Smiler that day wanted was a fun day out, but the awful truth is that for some of them life may never be the same again.

Alton Towers’ reputation is built on being a place where family and friends can enjoy funfair thrills in safety, and its response in a time of crisis has reflected this.

Communications from parent company Merlin focused first and foremost on the human angle: apologetic for the incident from the outset has been the tone set by CEO Nick Varney.

In many crisis management situations, companies are torn between taking the advice of their lawyers (say nothing, don’t accept responsibility) and that of their public relations adviser (focus on the people who are affected, say as much as you can, as soon as you can, but if you can’t say anything, explain why).

Whilst instinct may tell you to go with your legal team, the damage caused to your reputation by saying nothing or failing to accept responsibility can be huge. For companies whose focus is on families, ‘being human’ at a time of crisis is key to regaining trust.

By responding first to the needs of those affected in this life-changing accident, then addressing the safety concerns by first closing the park and then ensuring the attractions under investigation remain shut, Alton Towers put people before profit, a move which has resulted in many cancellations for the park and its surrounding hotels being rebooked.

So far, it seems ‘Towers’ reputation is intact. But this is a story about an accident that’s had a devastating impact on human lives. With the results of an HSE investigation to come and the injured still recovering, there’s still a long way to go. The role of a PR company is to promote, but it’s also to protect. And while much of their work will focus on promoting the great things a company is doing, a good PR will always have plans in place to help you handle a crisis that comes out of the blue.