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.