Crisis Communications Lessons Learned From Thailand Cave Rescue
I’ve been struggling if I should write about the efforts to rescue 12 soccer players and their coach from deep inside a cave in Thailand. As a parent, I’m concerned about being seen as exploiting a crisis situation (especially one involving children) in any way. However, there are great lessons in crisis communications to be learned from this rescue operation.
As I write this piece, eight of the young players have been removed from the cave. Their health, and the safety of those remaining in the cave, are yet unknown. So please keep this context in mind if you are reading this article after the rescue efforts are complete.
This is the first lesson of crisis communications. Information is constantly changing. What you think to be true in one moment may be untrue minutes, hours or days later. While you will do your best to confirm the validity of information, errors are made. But don’t use this as an excuse to not release information until you know it is 100% accurate. Accept (and be okay with) the fact that information changes, even after it is confirmed to be true.
Having worked in crisis communications for most of my public relations career, I know first-hand the amount of stress and anxiety facing everyone involved. Lives are in the balance. Emotions are running high. The room for error, from everyone involved, is huge and can be life-changing.
Sitting back watching the events in Thailand unfold from the comfort of my couch, half a world away, I have been impressed with the crisis communications efforts by the Thai officials. Here are some of my observations that we can all learn from this crisis in terms of effective crisis communications.
- Audience scope. Thai officials recognized early on this was not an isolated local, regional or even national media event. This was an international event on the same scale as the Chilean miners rescue five years ago. It’s important to know the reach of your story so you can prepare for the amount of media who will be on site (and keep them from interfering in the crisis). But here’s a key point – don’t forget who your KEY audience(s) is. In this case, the most important audiences are the family members directly impacted as well as the local community. Remember they are closely following the media coverage and/or are on the scene. Don’t let them hear devastating information from the media. Tell them first – and in person, if possible.
- Be empathetic. There are real people impacted directly and indirectly. Every statement, interview, release should keep these people, and their feelings, front and center. This is why you’ll often hear comments like “Our thoughts and prayers are with the rescue teams” at the beginning of statements.
- Protect privacy. You will notice the Thai government (as of writing this piece), has not released the names of the rescued boys or specific details on their medical conditions. Depending on what country you live in, there may be privacy laws you need to follow. For example, in Canada a person’s medical condition is his/her private information. The only information that can be given publicly (without the person’s consent) is whether the injuries are life threatening or non-life threatening. Avoid talking about broken bones, internal injuries, or other specific medical conditions as this could impact the person later on in life (think of insurance, employment).
- Timely release of information. Going back to my earlier point, facts change. Do your best to only release facts that have been verified from the project lead (fire chief, police, CEO). But don’t wait until you know 100% for sure. Instead, release what you do know. In this case, it didn’t take long for the Thai officials to let the media know a group of soccer players and their coach were trapped in the cave. The specific details of where they were, their names, the number of people, their condition, took days to unfold. In crisis communications, I recommend stating the obvious early on. Example – there was a plane crash at 4:30 p.m. The plane hit a building at 1st and 2nd streets. An evacuation of the building is underway. More details will be provided later.
- Provide regular updates. The media has received regular updates from Thai officials from consistent spokespeople. These updates are important in ensuring the Thai government is seen as a credible, reliable and official source of information. Without regular updates, the media are left on their own to file their stories, often getting information from unnamed sources with incorrect facts.
As you follow the Thai rescue, reflect on your own organization’s crisis communications plan. Do you have one? How often it is updated (or is it)? Is anyone trained on it? How often it is dusted off, reviewed and practiced? What lessons learned can you implement in your crisis communications plan?