There’s Always a Telltale Email Beneath the Surface
A deep-sea submersible, OceanGate’s Titan, is presently lost at the bottom of the Atlantic in an attempt to explore the wreckage of the Titanic. The vessel is projected to run out of air tomorrow morning. Some wealthy people are on board, which we know is critical to the interest in this story because the word “billionaire” surfaces in nearly every sentence of coverage. This refers to British tycoon Hamish Harding. There are five souls on board, likely including OceanGate’s CEO, Stockton Rush. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that much of the interest in the sinking of the Titanic was rooted in the presence of the super-rich on the ship, including an Astor and a Guggenheim. Not helping matters is the unfortunate suffix “gate” in the company’s name since the great scandals of the date have been gates – Watergate, Bridge-gate, Deflategate.
I watch news like this differently from other people because of the business I’m in. I fear for those on the vessel not just because I’m human but because I can’t imagine going under the sea in a tuna fish can. It is unlikely that my legacy will include undersea or space exploration. I’m increasingly wary of cycling outside because the pilots of the cars that whiz by me are texting.
It’s now emerging in the press that other thrill seekers had decided against taking the voyage on the Titan because they feared the company had been cutting costs. Allegations are now surfacing that OceanGate wasn’t meeting basic safety standards and that the vessel was operated by a “modified PlayStation controller.” There are reported lawsuits against the CEO, which may or may not mean anything, but your average person — and journalist — believes that if you’ve been sued, there must be something there.
I have never worked on a case where there weren’t concerns raised in a telltale email or memo prior to a crisis. This isn’t always a sign of malfeasance. You want there to be a robust debate about safety and should worry if there isn’t. After all, safety is rarely a zero-sum matter. Everything contains risk, and, at some point, experts and consumers must make decisions about the worth of the endeavor.
“Risk” is one of those words that sounds badass until you’re at the bottom of the sea running out of air. Herein lies the path to potential redemption — if, and only if, the passengers survive. From a crisis management perspective, it speaks well of OceanGate that its CEO is likely on board because it defuses the evergreen argument that the company was knowingly toying with the lives of others. However, if the passengers are not rescued, that confidence will quickly dissolve into charges of hubris. In this event, OceanGate is finished and will collapse under the weight of lawsuits and a lack of confidence. Evolution will produce a newer, better-funded alternative.
We live in times when the staggeringly rich are looking to do risky things with their money and lives. The technologies now exist to make such adventures possible. The future of enterprises like this will lie in the love of risk and the wealth and sophistication of the customer base pursuing it. They will be better able to distinguish between legal and safety noise versus signal. Educating the public at large will be beside the point, at least initially, because they won’t have access to these adventures for a while.
It won’t be the exploration industry’s job to convince CNN’s viewers that new undersea vessels are safe; the target audience will be more likely to read Forbes and listen to their investment and insurance advisors or perhaps experts on CNBC. Appeal to the super-rich and the patina of risk.
The idea of segmented audiences isn’t something that most people appreciate; people often ask me why companies do the things they do. I try to explain, “Perhaps you’re not the audience. Maybe that ad campaign is really for employees and shareholders and it’s just spilling over into your realm.”
The best crisis management strategy is, always has been, and always will be, saving the day. Let’s hope it happens today.