Fortunately no one died in the fire in the Channel Tunnel, but will this
fact, combined with glib reassurances be enough to get a nervous public
back on track?
OK, so everyone got out of the blazing tunnel alive. OK, so only 3.5p
was shaved off Eurotunnel shares. OK, so the bi-national emergency plan
was rehearsed only ten days before the first for-real incident. But oh
dear, things aren’t looking too good for Eurotunnel.
Post-fire management started to go pear-shaped the minute Eurotunnel’s
president, Patrick Ponsolle, described the fire as ‘an unpleasant
incident’. Within hours that had been adjusted to ‘a serious incident’.
But it set the tone of the PR response to what could have been a tragic
chapter in Eurotunnel’s controversial history.
Keith Harper, the Guardian’s transport correspondent, has been one of
the most vociferous critics of the PR team’s handling of the event. He
called for them to be sacked. He’d been told nothing but ‘disinformation
and half-truths’ he wrote on last Thursday’s comment page. Phone lines
were insufficient, press briefings sparse, there were no briefings for
specialist correspondents and top spokesmen like co-chairman Robert
Malpas were never accessible, he complained.
The Consumer’s Association has been just as critical. ‘Alain Bertrand
[Eurotunnel operations director] said trains would be running by lunch
time the day after the fire. For goodness sake, the fire had only been
brought under control at 6am that morning, it was obvious he was
whistling in the dark,’ said the association’s deputy head of research,
The facts constantly contradicted the consistently upbeat message from
senior executives, added Brown.
Independent crisis management consultant and author of The Crisis
Checklist, Michael Bland, concedes the Consumer’s Association and
British Safety Council’s ‘I told you so’ reactions put Eurotunnel in a
defensive spot. ‘Nevertheless,’ he claims, ‘PR-wise they did a lot right
and not much wrong’. They were quite right to use Malpas as the front
man, putting a human face on the company’s reaction and right too to
emphasise the heroism and professionalism of staff during the disaster.
But the PR team should have kept a tighter grip on the feed of
information to the press and with just 20 phone lines to handle around
8,000 calls in the days after the fire, there were bound to be problems
for some journalists getting through, says Bland.
As for Patrick Ponsolle’s faux pas, it underlines the problems of
working on both sides of the Channel simultaneously. ‘The French press
is far more responsible, the British more sensational. Eurotunnel is
going to have to be more canny in the way they deliver the news,’ adds
The Financial Times’ transport correspondent, Charles Batchelor agrees
the language problem should be taken seriously. ‘The French executives
all speak good English, but I had the impression they thought they were
still dealing with the French media. For us, their language was too
vague and they made rather glib comments.’
The Institute of Public Relations’ president Rosemary Brook, says the
cultural differences cannot be overemphasised. ‘You do use a different
form of language to the more naive French media than to the hyped-up
British media, but otherwise, it’s ridiculous to say the PR department
performed poorly. They’re under huge pressure. Given the context, they
did reasonably well.’
Here here, says Hill and Knowlton’s director of crisis management, David
Brotzen. Top marks particularly, he says, for isolating the incident to
a question of freight safety, rather than letting Le Shuttle become
‘But they’re not out of the woods,’ he warns. ‘If I was their PR, I’d
take the media in, show them what happened and why. I’d launch an
independent investigation into the cause and severity of the fire and be
open and honest about its findings. I’d also review all rolling stock to
reassure all travellers that safety is the number one priority.’
Thanks, but no thanks, for the advice, says Communications Partnership,
which deals with Eurotunnel’s freight PR. ‘I’ll pass you to Eurotunnel,
we aren’t allowed to talk about this, it’s corporate level only,’ says
director, Yvonne Mulder. Ditto at Millbank, which deals with tourist
travel on Le Shuttle.
Eurotunnel’s in-house press team has been the sole source of information
on the fire and it’s worked well, insists Channel-hopping press officer
Anne Leva. ‘This is the first I’ve heard that people couldn’t get
through on the phone,’ she says. ‘But we’ll look into it.’ Similarly,
the debriefing, probably in the latter half of next week, will look at
the problems of flippant language by the French and what Leva calls the
‘over-optimism’ of senior executives.
According to Michael Bland, it takes a lot for a company to come out of
this sort of crisis in poorer shape than it went in. By stressing how
seriously it’s taking safety fears and how efficiently it handled the
fire, Eurotunnel could emerge with an enhanced safety reputation.
The ferries are also likely to benefit, according to one insider. With
the Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigating how Eurotunnel’s
increasing share of cross-Channel traffic is putting ferries out of
business, they’ll be able to capitalise on this incident, claiming that
it proves the need for a comercially viable alternative to the tunnel.
Meanwhile, Eurotunnel’s press office sticks to its well-honed line:
‘Everyone got out safely thanks to well-rehearsed safety procedures and
the professionalism of staff.’ It remains to be seen whether the PR
people themselves will escape unscathed.