Because Shell's reaction was so swift and responsibility for managing the situation was taken immediately by the oil giant, many PROs are looking to the ongoing situation as an example of how communication should be handled during a major crisis.
In crisis terms, potential or actual loss of life is the most serious crisis of all. But whether dealing with a death, or even a response to a media report that has potentially damaging effects on a corporate reputation, any organisation facing such a scenario needs to respond rapidly, stating its position clearly and demonstrating how it plans to deal with the situation.
The alternative is the loss of control, in which any information vacuum can lead to false reports and a reputation doubly spoiled by appearing not to be engaged with a serious issue.
Shell would not comment on its handling of the situation at this sensitive time, but Andrew Griffin, senior consultant at crisis agency Regester Larkin, which has worked for Shell on other crises, says:'With huge resources going into the operational response, it is tempting to view public communication as a low priority. But in this instance, Shell got it right. The company took public ownership straightaway, recognising that, whatever the cause of the tragedy, it was its contractors and people involved and it must provide leadership.
'The sentiments expressed by Clive Mather were clearly heartfelt and he conveyed the information the media demanded clearly and factually,' adds Griffin.
Response time and preparedness are crucial to handling a crisis successfully.
In a recent survey conducted by Weber Shandwick, 18 per cent of communications directors said they had no warning at all before a crisis hit, with a further 39 per cent having less than 24 hours to react. Asked to rate the importance of reacting fast enough to a crisis between one and ten, the average was nine.
So how can a crisis communications team cut its response time, and is process or technology the key influence on speed of reaction?
Boy scouts the world over have always stood by a deceptively simple rule: be prepared. Michael Regester, co-founder of crisis specialist Regester Larkin, says there is much to be learned by following that axiom.
'It is still difficult for companies (in a crisis) to recognise that they need to get out there and communicate. But if a company is properly prepared, the response can be as fast as breaking news,' says Larkin.
Burson-Marsteller deputy chairman Gavin Grant agrees: 'A lot of preparation can immediately give the impression of a very fast response.' In other words, plan. Thames Trains, for example, was helped by the fact it had done a full-scale crisis management run-through three weeks before the Ladbroke Grove crash in 1999.
But this won't help if your people aren't up to it once the real crisis starts. Experts talk of a 'golden hour', the period during which situations can spiral out of control into full-blown crises.
Joanne Milroy, director in the corporate communications practice at WS, says: 'The survey showed that speed is ever more critical and people have very little time. You are now lucky to have a "golden five minutes".'
But whatever the time shortage, any time gained by the organisation is of great value in explaining its perspective, what action it is taking and clarifying incorrect perceptions.
Martin Langford worked on his first crisis in 1974 and held a number of senior management roles at Burson-Marsteller over the next two decades. He is now an independent consultant on crisis management. He has managed more than 300 crises around the world and is about to launch his own specialist agency.
'It amuses me when people say: "You've always got to plan for the worst case". Yes you have, but human nature says people plan for the worst thing they can handle.
You have got to plan that things are always going to get worse than that,' says Langford.
'Crisis plans get the menial business out of the way (eg identifying spokespeople, stakeholder contacts, holding statements) and crisis planning is one step in a process. But success is down to the culture and leadership of the organisation.
'Nine times out of ten the company (in crisis) has a real problem: the main thing people miss is not defining that problem and, therefore, its impact on the company and the brand.
'(When you have done that) you must centralise the flow of information rather than have managers around the world talking to the media with different messages. Also, don't try and run your business at the same time,' he adds.
Limehouse Partners MD Charles Lankester says: 'Speed is a function of good processes. I'm simplifying, but the little laminated card with people's out-of-office phone numbers on it is the most useful piece of kit. The ability to reach people on a real-time basis is vital.'
The early involvement of a board director, preferably the chief executive, is also needed for a rapid response, Lankester says, 'providing the CEO is the right person for the job. There are some fantastic CEOs who aren't brilliant communicators'.
Countrywide Porter Novelli director of crisis management Jonathan Hemus agrees: 'People will make judgments based on first impressions, so the first hours are crucial.
A senior spokesman is most important in getting hold of the agenda.'
Perhaps surprisingly, technology such as web conferencing is not seen as vital in improving teams' speed of reaction. Software can help track and trace data online, although something as basic as a mobile phone remains a useful tool in crisis management. The internet has enabled direct communication with stakeholders during a crisis, bypassing the media.
While professional communicators are notoriously slow to adopt new technology, there are plenty of technology-based tools that are marketed as ways of improving crisis handling; from web and tele-conferencing systems to data maintaining and website tools.
Hemus advises: 'Get accurate information onto your website as quickly as possible, giving your perspective, comments and statements.'
But, at the moment, websites' use goes no further than that, Regester says: 'IT consultants are overhyping the possible use of websites. We are a couple of years away from loading up broadcast-quality film onto the web.'
And 'dark' sites, which sit behind existing sites and can be immediately brought forward in a crisis, are 'cumbersome and unnecessary,' he adds.
CPN handled last year's Hatfield crash on behalf of train company GNER.
Hemus says: 'The main reason GNER managed it well was because of (CEO) Christopher Garnett and the supportive, people-focused culture in the company. He was the archetypal CEO who wants to be there at the scene because he knows it's the right thing to do. He was central to it. Managers took their lead from him.'
Senior managers, understandably, want all the facts before making business decisions - but in a crisis situation, these are rarely available, which makes crisis training for company executives a key ingredient in quick response.
Edelman PR Worldwide head of international crisis management Mike Seymour says: 'In those early minutes and hours the nightmare is that you don't know the full story.'
Yet doing nothing for any length of time is not an option. Seymour adds: 'People in communications companies are used to working at that speed; corporate management don't do that very often so have to get used to handling things at pace.
At Ladbroke Grove it was ten days before we knew how many people were in the front coach. Explain why you can't talk; afterwards, be ready to give as much information as possible.'
Grant adds: 'You can't overcommunicate - speculation will fill the vacuum if you don't.'
'Crises are all-enveloping, 24/7,' says Langford. 'You must master the skills of delegation, if you haven't learnt them. Do research in a crisis - if you don't know what your consumers are thinking, how can you communicate?
Do you know how consumers are reacting? You have to have an experienced team working with experienced crisis counsel. Get that right, and 99 out of 100 decisions will be correct ones.
'But still many companies are ill-prepared. The main sin this industry commits is putting people into situations with too little or no experience to manage crises for their clients.'
To complement crisis training and planning there must be access to the most up-to-date media information, with regular briefings of key players.
Grant was client leader on Equitable Life during the insurer's controversial campaign to cut policy values by 16 per cent and end the practice of uncapped annuities rates.
'We treated it almost as a political campaign: we took over the boardroom and turned it into a "war room", manned 24/7,' Grant recalls. 'The chairman, chief executive and chief financial officer were there at "morning prayers each day and were in phone contact at weekends.'
Hemus adds: 'If a client wants to have any hope of controlling the situation, it has to be seen as the centre (of response to the situation). At a practical level there was a massive media monitoring unit feeding into him (GNER's Garnett) and the team knew what was happening so he was right on top of it, and able to inject fact into the situation. Within an hour (of the crash) that set-up was in place, with people watching TV, the internet, and so on.'
Seymour says internal comms is also important: 'When the world's media is beating on your door it is easy to forget internal communications.
But the impact on staff can be really, really high, so make sure they know as much as possible and know what they are doing.'
In the aftermath of the Hatfield crash, internal comms was a priority.
Hemus explains: 'You have to be communicating with all stakeholders because they take their messages from the media and you need to be retaining their confidence.'
The rise in the use of call centres means consumers now have instant access to many firms' representatives, who must be well informed, says Grant. 'People's expectation is "you will know". If the answer is "I don't know then they start to wonder "why, what are they keeping from me?".'
JBP PR handled crisis management for Fortis Insurance, the firm that insured the car driver who crashed onto the rails and caused the Selby rail disaster in February 2001. Its immediate and consistent external refrain, that 'victims will be looked after', won praise, and Fortis's own staff were constantly kept informed of the latest news. 'Victims and their families needed to be dealt with sensitively,' JBP chief executive Jenny Bailey says.
Clear communication, planning and having accurate data were identified by more than half the communications directors in the WS survey as the most important issues in dealing with crisis situations.
In terms of speeding up the response to crises, there remains no substitute for adequate scenario planning and experienced, well-trained teams managing the situation, identifying media-trained client contacts and ensuring 24-hour access to them.
Hemus says: 'The really crucial thing is having all the training, plans and spokespeople ready so it can be turned on as soon as the balloon goes up.'
Undoubtedly, technology has its place in the crisis manager's toolkit, particularly as cross-border - even global - crises require information to go round the world at great speed.
But to most of those on the forefront with the crisis comms team, a watertight process is invaluable. It all comes down to being prepared.
CASE STUDY - WEB CONFERENCING FIRM PLACEWARE
The PR industry is a notorious late adopter of new technologies, but there are many technologies aimed specifically at providing solutions for crisis communications.
PlaceWare is a web conferencing company that aims its products at organisations that need to communicate with audiences in distant locations. One product is aimed at crisis communication.
'Any organisation that has handled a public relations crisis will understand that the key to success lies in getting the correct messaging across as soon as possible,' says PlaceWare EMEA marketing manager Mireia Fontbernat.
'Using only a telephone and internet connection, journalists, analysts and shareholders can be briefed on the developments of an organisation from their desktop,' she adds.
Several organisations have used PlaceWare's server-based conferencing system during a crisis, one of which is a financial institution with headquarters in continental Europe (the client has requested anonymity).
Many international organisations faced severe challenges at the outbreak of the political and economic crisis in Argentina earlier this year, with many considering pulling out of the region.
PlaceWare's client used the web conference system to keep employees around the globe informed of decisions three times a week at the start of the crisis, and gave weekly updates as the problems continued.
The key advantage of the system was the ability to get the same message across at the same time to all employees.
By using an interactive technology, feedback was also immediate, using a text tool to type in feedback and questions that were answered by a designated moderator.
Employees were also able to indicate their mood via a customisable mood chart, providing feedback to the speaker and comments such as asking him or her to slow down, provide more detail or to simplify explanations.
Because the system allows text and images to be used in real-time, employees were able to view financial information in Excel and a PowerPoint presentation on the company's future strategy.