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Crisis communication in a personal tragedy



This week, regardless of their team allegiances, rugby fans are uniting in their concern for Alex McKinnon. The 22-year-old player for the Newcastle Knights was seriously injured during a match that left him with devastating spinal injuries.

Following the tackle almost two weeks ago, Alex was put in an induced coma. Fans waited for more information, taking to Twitter with the hashtag #riseforAlex to express their support. Earlier this week, some relief came when it was announced that Alex’s ventilation system had been removed and he was able to communicate with his family.

The small victory was short-lived though when Channel 9 reported Alex had beendiagnosed a quadriplegic. Fans were shattered by the news and angered when this information was later found to be unverified. As a result Channel 9 has received criticism from the Knights, the NRL, fans and even other media outlets for speculating about such a serious claim.

The fact is, speculation in the media is never a good thing, but there are certain topics that should be taken with an extra level of care. This was one of those times. Out of respect to Alex, his family and the worried fans, this was a story that no one could afford to get wrong.

We frequently discuss the dangers of conflicting information in the media. In some instances, the media must act quickly to alleviate panic, provide answers and even assist in response. In a case like this however, Channel 9 should have taken the extra time to verify facts before making claims. Breaking a story first is a lot less important than ensuring that story is accurate.

For both the media and communications professionals, sensitive topics must be entered into with caution. In a case like this, there are a number of stakeholders involved.

On one hand, the media and the public are waiting anxiously. On the other hand, most of us can understand that a family would want privacy in a time like this. Finally, there is the rugby club itself which must balance these interests and take responsibility for many of the communication activities on the family’s behalf.

So how do we balance these interests?

The biggest challenge is to respect privacy while simultaneously keeping the flow of information open to the public. Ascommunications practitioners, we carry the responsibility of managing different stakeholders during a case like this so that the family and club can focus on the most important thing: supporting the player.

Alex’s family and the club have both issued provided the media with several updates over the last few days. These updates manage to maintain Alex’s privacy while still providing critical information about milestones in his recovery.

It’s important to issue frequent updates so the public and media feel they are in the loop. Some of these updates might simply be to let the public know that there is no new information available, but this can still be an effective measure to prevent speculation.

It’s also important to remember that in an incident like this, the public’s desire to know is stemming from a genuine place of concern and sadness. Provide fan with ways they can offer their support. In this case, the club provided an e-mail address where fans could send letters to Alex.

In sport especially, fans are often seen as part of a club’s family. They turn out week after week to support their team. Just as they want to cheer from the stadium, they also want to be part of the support system in times of difficulty for the club.

Matters like these require an extra level of caution and sensitivity. Fans are a key stakeholder and maintaining lines of communication with them involves frequent updates, managing relationships with the media and providing them with information on what they can do to help.

Thinking through scenarios and putting communication plans in place will put your organisation in the best position to respond in a professional and timely manner when things go wrong. If you require advice or assistance to identify your risks and prepare a communication plan contact us for advice.

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