16 April 2024
P O Ferries crisis communications

P & O Ferries needs more than Crisis Communications after job loss announcement went wrong

An announcement around job-losses was never going to be an easy piece of communications work but P&O Ferries got it completely wrong this week when they announced they were canning 800 people and then hiring cheaper labour to replace them. Let’s take a look through the P&O Crisis Communications situation.

The Issue

On Thursday March 17th P&O Ferries played a pre-recorded video to all if its staff via a zoom meeting. The video was fronted by the CEO of P&O and announced that a third party crew provider (the cheaper labour bit) would be manning its fleet of ships and as such all of the staff contracts would be terminated immediately.

The staff were, rightly, outraged and some even refused to leave their ships although the company had anticipated this and hired “handcuff-trained” security people to get workers off the ships. This all played out terribly in the news headlines and also became a political situation via trade union lobbying.

This was more than an external communications failure, it was also an internal comms failure too. It is clear that some staff who had insider knowledge about what was happening also felt aggrieved as internal emails and contracts were subsequently leaked to the media.

The backdrop to the cost saving element is that P&O Ferries owners paid a £250m shareholder dividend two years ago as well as taking Government furlough money worth £15m.

What Could be Done?

I think it is obvious that little prep went into the Media Q&A document that big brands of this nature should have in place in readiness for managing a crisis communications situation. So the first thing would be to look at this and see what positioning points can be drawn from this.

There was little to no communication on who the third party supplier would be and if there had been discussions between the company and the supplier on its existing staff being able to apply for roles there too. This would have been controversial in its own right as they are effectively hiring them back at a cheaper rate, which is is terrible.

Could greater detail have gone into the £100m loss statement that the company used to try and justify the decision? For instance, adding a timescale of how long the company could survive for at the current loss rate. The company also needs to get its lobbying team out in force as well, to address the claims being made by politicians and unions in order to try an get their message across.

As of yet, I have not seen any senior level employees (typically the CEO) being put up for media interviews and if they stand any chance of surviving the media rage they need to get out there fast. The company needs to put senior people up to try and get ahead of the story and give a more human element to what has and is happening.

Being completely honest, P&O Ferries are one of very few service providers so it will be hard for consumers to talk with their feet so there is an argument for hunkering down and trying to ride out the storm. That being said, the brand damage has already been done and they will need some form or reputation management campaign to try and fix the longer term damage.

Unlike normal crisis communications campaigns there is little point in going down the usual path of announcing an external inquiry, not least because the UK Government will probably do this themselves. They should though, be seen to be apologising for the way the message was communicated and, again, demonstrate human feelings rather than just being a corporate machine.

Let’s end with the nuclear option though. The owners of P&O have multiple other brands in their stable and this current storm could lead to the P&O name disappearing from the waves via the route of a re-brand. As Facebook would say; if in doubt, re-brand.

In years to come, this will be an excellent case study for internal and external communications students in how not to do things. For now though, this is a horrid situation for all of the staff involved and I really feel for them.

Finally, one of the Crisis Communications people I most respect is Stuart Bruce and it is really worth reading his take on the whole P&O Ferries situation by clicking on the link in the tweet below.

I was also very flattered to have been asked to give my own thoughts on the P&O Ferries Crisis Communications situation to The Drum, one the of the world’s most renowned Marketing, Public Relations and Advertising news titles.

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