Rolls-Royce has issued four carefully-worded statements on its website since the November 4 accident with the Qantas plane, most recently on November 12 in an interim management statement. In the statement, chief executive John Rose said, “Safety is the highest priority of Rolls-Royce. This has been demonstrated by the rapid and prudent action we have taken following the Trent 900 incident.”
John Rosenstock, head of corporate communications for Rolls-Royce, declined to comment for this article. In fact, the company has declined to comment to virtually all press inquiries.
PR pros are divided on the tight-lipped approach Rolls-Royce has taken.
Justine Griffin, SVP of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, says “what it looks like they're trying to do is get that balance right, between such issues as legal exposure, which argues for saying very little, and stock price, which argues for saying more and providing more reassurances.”
Griffin says Rolls-Royce doesn't want to say something they'd come to regret or have to retract, a fear likely heightened by the infamous BP example. BP chief executive Tony Hayward found himself in hot water following seemingly unscripted comments he made following an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the company.
“To some extent, I think they are a lot closer to the right path than BP, which is to tell people what you know and what your game plan is for fixing it,” she says. “And then the next time Rolls-Royce pops in the news is for a giant engine order—that is not so bad.”
On Wednesday, November 17, Rolls-Royce announced a $100 million share in an engine deal with TAM Airlines.
Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, agrees that the incident hasn't so far appeared to have damaged Rolls-Royce's reputation, at least based on online chatter. “I don't think people still connect the fact that Rolls-Royce makes the engines, because for the most part the bigger focus has been on Qantas,” says Bernstein.
Still, he said, the company has done far too little in its response and has showed very little compassion in terms of passenger safety, which leads him to believe its communications is being directed by lawyers. He says that could come back to hurt them.
“Rolls-Royce appears to be adding the Rolls-Royce of bad crisis communications examples to their product line,” Bernstein tells PRWeek. “If negative chatter, for some reasons, starts to increase, they need to be prepared to escalate their communications through traditional and new media.”
Rolls-Royce has been focused on investor relations, but he says it could be dangerous for them to ignore consumer sentiment. “The investment community is a very emotional community, and they are influenced by the opinions of people who are not investors,” says Bernstein. “If a whole lot of people say we will not fly on planes known to have Rolls-Royce engines, their investors will react to that.”
In contrast, Qantas Airways has actively been communicating to the public about the incident that has temporarily grounded its Airbus A380 fleet.
As a consumer brand, Griffin says the CEO has had to be visible, “reassuring people that the planes will be grounded, but then trying to balance that with saying, ‘Well, not for too long', due to stock price, and quickly pinning the blame squarely on the Rolls-Royce engine.”
In addition to providing updates via traditional media tactics such as press conferences, Qantas has also used customer channels including Qantas.com and its Facebook page.
Simon Rushton, media relations manager for Qantas, declined to comment for this article.