South Korean Ferry: Crisis Communication Failure

Recently, I had an argument with my sisters fiance. It was about whether or not communications crisis training is actually helpful during crisis events. His point was that most of the things that happen during crises are out of the hands of crisis communicators, and that good communications are not likely to effect public perceptions very much when an organization is clearly at fault. He also argued that crises tent to correct themselves over time anyway, and that having a crisis communication plan serves only to foster fear.

His points are actually pretty good. Some academics have argued much the same about crisis communication, and in many cases they are probably correct. However, I present to you a case where good crisis communication planning might have saved lives.

On April 16th 2014, the ferry Sewol capsized off the coast of South Korea. 179 of the 475 people on the ferry were rescued, but the rest, most of whom were high school students, perished in the ship.

It took the ship over 40 minutes to sink, but passengers were told to stay inside the ship. Why? The captain defended the decision not to order passengers to evacuate by saying, “The tidal current was strong and water temperature was cold, and there was no rescue boat.”


It is easy to judge having not been there at the time, but this decisions seems supremely stupid. The worst place to be on a sinking ship is inside of the sinking ship. But often it is hard for people to recognize when a crisis has occurred. This is especially true when they have not practiced what to do in a crisis.

The communications officer spent the first 30 minutes of the ship sinking telling people to stay inside. In South Korea, people obey authority, and the consequences of listening to this order were dire.

The New York Times included the following graft in one of their first articles about the tragedy:

“I repeatedly told people to calm themselves and stay where they were for an hour,” Kang Hae-seong, the communications officer on the South Korean ferry that sank on Wednesday, said from his hospital bed. He added that he could not recall taking part in any evacuation drills for the ship, and that when a real emergency came, “I didn’t have time to look at the manual for evacuation.”


Making an evacuation manual is not enough! Drills need to be held, people need to be assigned roles, and an effective crisis team needs to be cultivated and maintained.

The crisis communications position is an essential part of any crisis response team. Crisis communication professionals are not just interested in protecting corporate reputations; they sometimes have the task of disseminating urgent messages that can save lives.





South Korean Ferry Sewol: Fake Text Messages

Official organizations have very little power to prevent terrorism. From a communications perspective, terrorism is the intentional creation of crisis from an external source.

When parents first started receiving text messages and seeing social media posts seemingly from their trapped children, it fueled hope and a sense of desperation. Parents clamored for a faster recovery effort, and the emotional tension heightened the sense of confusion within the situation.

These texts fueled rumors and false hope across South Korea.

As stated on CNN:

“The texts also fueled a tense atmosphere at Jindo — where distraught families viewed them as proof several passengers were alive. This led to remonstrations and the hurling of objects at authorities, who relatives accused of not doing enough to save their children.


South Korea has been gripped by this tragedy and the pronouncement of these fake social posts added to the collective anguish — especially as social media has been playing a crucial role in relaying information from the site.”


As it turns out, however, the texts and messages were not real. South Korean police authorities communicated this information from their Twitter account. They said:

“An investigation from the Police Cyber Terror Response Center verified that all texts in question [from passengers still within the ship] are fake.” South Korean police further urged the terrorists to stop tormenting the families affected by the tragedy.

This message was well crafted. Families needed to know this information, and they probably should have been told in person. However, the news media also needed to know. The texts parents were receiving had been widely publicized, and getting this information out was essential.

This being said, the simple reality of the situation was a hard barrier to overcome. The fake messages had done their damage:

“The revelations of fake posts have added to a growing sense of public confusion, mistrust and escalating frustration — particularly among the passengers’ relatives — over the handling of the search and rescue operations, media coverage and official releases of information.”


This effect is exactly opposite to what crisis communications professionals want to happen. If we are going to use social media to help us communicate with stakeholders during crises then we need to be vigilant about breaches in the security of those communications platforms. 



South Korean Ferry Sewol: School and Company

I have stated before that I do not like to negatively judge organizations for communicating during a crisis. It is too easy to judge from a distance and in hindsight. But sometimes there is an event that shows exactly why preparing for crisis is so important. Sometimes criticism is warranted.

The communications surrounding the recent (2014) South Korea ferry disaster were atrocious. This story is so ridiculous that it requires multiple blog posts.

The School

Many of the parents of the students from Ansan Danwon High School went to the school to wait for word about their loved ones. At one point early in the crisis the school announced that everyone had been saved. The school later rescinded that statement, causing extreme distress to the parents.


One of the most basic rules of crisis communication is that no organization should ever state that people are alive or dead until the information has been confirmed beyond doubt. Making an error in this respect is a quick way to lose credibility and public sympathy.

It is important to note that the administration at the school is also likely going through extreme grief. They will likely be forgiven, and their error has already fallen by the wayside in the media coverage of the tragedy.

The Company

The CEO of Chonghaejin Marine Co., which owned and operated the ship, made only a brief public appearance. He apologized and stated “I committed a sin punishable by death . . . I am at a loss for words. I am sorry. I am sorry.”


Apologizing was likely a good message to communicate, especially considering South Korean culture. However, this message did nothing to help fill the void of uncertainty enhance in this crisis. Chonghaejin Marine Co. probably does not have the resources to assist in the recovery effort anyway, but informing the public that they will cooperate with any investigation might have helped. To compound the issue, all of the top executives and shareholders in the company have been ordered not to leave the country. As it stands, Chonghaejin Marine Co. looks guilty.