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Marikana - SA's Deepwater Horizon

Just under two and a half years ago an explosion at BP's Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico forever changed the way business responds to a crisis. More than this, events and reactions (some may even argue inactions) surrounding what was the biggest marine oil spill in history, set a new benchmark for how crisis communications managers respond and recover.

That's just it. From a communications perspective the mandate is wholly about three simple rules. Prepare. Respond. Recover. This was something that BP's media teams seemed consistently unable to achieve. Driven mostly by a horrible lack of readiness, BP's response in itself became the story and ultimately resulted in the very public departure of its CEO.

Crucially, the crisis communications lessons from BP still hold true. Yet when violence erupted at Lonmin's Marikana mine on August 10th, no one seemed to have internalised them yet. What this translated into was a frightening reputation gap, clearly linked to a lack of preparation, a perpetually reactionary and piecemeal response and little to no shift towards recovery.

But it's getting worse. In crisis communications terms Marikana is effectively out of control. It's clear a lack of preparation has underpinned a poor response, which lacks a clear position on issues involved. What is probably more concerning is that the response in itself has just not been good enough, from any of the stakeholders involved. Simply put, what it lacks is a clear unambiguous (read heartfelt) response to finding a solution which involves decisive action against those responsible. Not a witch hunt, just accountability, because with a lack of ownership it's almost impossible to recover.

Sticking your head in the sand is not a response to a crisis. Instead, we need to understand that executives have a legal and fiduciary responsibility to understand the news cycle. This means dedicating real time and real resources to developing the relationships with both media and stakeholders, which will make them effective communicators in times of crisis, as well as the time preparing for the worst possible scenario.

Add to this poor stakeholder management and relationships, and what you achieve is an inability to sit around a table in a "war room" and collectively agree a single minded response, which can be measured and incrementally rolled out. In turn, what this would achieve is a swift response and direct intervention which results in recovery. Working together is a good thing because it drives a perception of accountability.

What Marikana has emphasised again is that planning for a crisis is critical for all executives and board members for large organisations. An inability to communicate in a time of crisis has accelerated the reputation damage (for all role players) and has directly undermined confidence in the organisations involved, and the country as a whole.

Moving on is simple. It's time for an apology and a sincere effort at accountability from all parties. It's time the mining sector as a whole (and all stakeholders, including the media) realise that it is not too late for a "war room". Taking control is a critical step which commences with preparation for all the possible scenarios moving forward. Only then can a response be credible and only then can you recover.

Marikana is undoubtedly a new benchmark for crisis communications management in South Africa. More importantly, it has some real lessons to learn. Hopefully before history repeats itself again.

Dustin Chick is Head of Strategy for Ogilvy Public Relations and has extensive communications experience, having managed various multi-national brands and campaigns. His experience includes the development of the reputation management strategy for Brand South Africa and successful campaigns for the World Economic Forum and the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Dustin has managed South African and Pan-African communications campaigns for a number of major multinational brands. Dustin is a journalism and political science graduate.

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