It was hard to sympathise with the boss of Merlin Entertainment Nick Varney after the accident on the Smiler ride at Alton Towers in which 16 people were injured – but a lot of people did.
That was because of the way he was hectored by Sky News presenter Kay Burley during a live interview about the accident. Burley lived up to her reputation for aggressive interviewing, and kept pressing him when he refused to confirm or deny reports that one of the victims had lost a limb, which subsequently turned out to be the case.
Varney, who looked increasingly uncomfortable, said he could not give any details about the injury suffered by the person concerned as this was “deeply personal information”. Burley was never going to let him off with such a response. Was he really suggesting the public did not have a right to know how badly the people on the ride had been hurt?
Varney did a little better when dealing with his firm’s safety record. It was, he said, “top range” – an unfortunate choice of words under the circumstances. He added they had “never had an accident like this” before at any of their theme parks.
But that did not mean they had become complacent: another “layer” of safety checks had been put in place to make sure it did not happen again. Burley immediately leapt on this.
Did that mean their procedures were inadequate and their rides were not safe in the first place. And so it went on…
A lot of people felt sorry for Mr Varney. Burley’s performance led to more than 1,100 complaints to media regulator Ofcom and an online petition demanding an inquiry signed by over 27,000 people.
Luckily for Mr Varney that became a story in its own right and for a short while took some of the focus off his company.
But when you examine the interview a little deeper, Mr Varney’s performance was also questionable: he never had a hope of taking control of the interview.
There were two things he did right: he never lost his temper – which he could have done quite easily – and he looked and sounded genuinely contrite: both important if you’re doing a crisis communications interview.
However, given the seriousness of the situation, he really needed to prepare for the interview more carefully and take nothing and no-one, especially the likes of Kay Burley, for granted. Given her performance with Peter Andre, whom she reduced to tears, and many others, he should have known what to expect and made sure he had a strategy to deal with it. It is a lesson for any top executive plunged into a crisis.