Lessons in Crisis Communications from G4S’s Olympic Fail

By Dominic Cockram

On Friday, the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee recommended that global security firm G4S should top a ‘blacklist’ of firms who have failed to deliver on government contracts. The company admitted that they would not be able to fulfil their contract to supply 10,400 guards for the London 2012 Olympic Games just two weeks before the opening ceremony. MPs said that G4S were entirely responsible for the “humiliating shambles” (the CEO’s own words) and should waive their £57 million management fee as a result. In addition, staff who were trained but then left without work due to G4S’s poor organisation should be compensated.

CEO of G4S
Financially and (perhaps more importantly for their long-term survival) reputationally, G4S is still reeling from the impact of their Olympic-sized crisis. As crisis experts, we know that this doesn’t have to be the case – organisations can come out of a crisis stronger and with reputations bolstered if they respond well. So what went wrong for G4S?

The single biggest lesson we can learn from the G4S crisis is that communicating proactively – and early – is key.  In particular, organisations in a crisis need to:

1.   Spot the clouds on the horizon and inform those who need to know

This crisis did not come out of the blue – it was a ‘rising tide’ and one that should have been spotted a long way off.  The question remains as to why no one was told until just two weeks before the Games began.

2.   Keep your staff in the loop

Proactive internal communications help reassure staff that a situation is under control, keeping them on-side and informed of key messages should they be approached by the media. Instead, G4S staff and recruits were asking questions, criticising the company and escalating complaints via social media. They were also very vocal in complaining to the press. The overall atmosphere was one of confusion and internal dysfunction.

3.   The Comms Team are your friends!

G4S’s communications structure has been described as ‘pretty hierarchical’, and that the top team were “100% focussed on getting the delivery right” — and not on comms. With a trusted Communications Team and an integrated crisis management team, a pro-active communications strategy can ease the pressure on the top decision-makers, allowing them to focus on delivery.

4.   A media vacuum will always be filled

G4S’ closed and reactive approach to communications meant that journalists turned to other sources –picking from a throng of often disgruntled recruits making themselves very easy to find on social media.  CEO Nick Buckles did not provide any media interviews for four days following the announcement, and didn’t win any friends in the media – he was hounded and largely ridiculed following his first public appearance before the Parliamentary Committee.

5.   Nominate an effective media-trained spokesperson

The media spokesperson may be the CEO, but it doesn’t have to be. They must, however, be fully media-trained, prepped and (preferably) well practised at providing interviews. The G4S CEO’s uneven performance under questioning (and convenient surname) led to unfortunate headlines such as  “Nick Buckles Under Pressure” — something that might have been avoided had journalists perceived an open, forthright and confident spokesperson in full command of the facts.

Stay tuned for our 3rd Crisis Lesson –  ‘Communication Integration’ – to help ensure you turn these lessons into an effective crisis communications strategy.

—————- UPDATE —————-

28th September 2012:
Two directors of G4S have resigned following investigations into the company’s failure to fulfil their Olympic security contract with LOCOG for London 2012. Nick Buckles remains as CEO.

About Dominic Cockram

Founder and MD of Steelhenge. Pioneer of simulation exercises with over 20 years experience in business continuity and crisis management. Dominic is an experienced speaker determined to make the world a more resilient place.

2 thoughts on “Lessons in Crisis Communications from G4S’s Olympic Fail

  1. Pingback: The 8 1/2 Cs of Crisis Communications | Crisis Management

  2. Pingback: G4S boss Buckles on his hairy Olympics moment | Isenberg Institute of Strategic Satire

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