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A lost memory stick containing sensitive security information – including some relating to the Queen – sounds like the sort of testing scenario you may find on a crisis communication training course.
But this was no simulation.
Heathrow Airport found itself managing a very high profile and embarrassing data breach over the weekend when a Sunday newspaper reported the contents of a USB stick found in a street in London.
It reportedly contained a range of documents and maps marked ‘restricted’ and ‘confidential’, including the exact route the Queen takes to the airport, a timetable of security patrols guarding against terror attacks and the types of ID needed for restricted areas.
Other data on the stick included maps locating CCTV cameras and a network of tunnels linked to the Heathrow Express as well as details of the ultrasound radar system used to scan runways and the perimeter fence.
All pretty damaging, embarrassing and potentially worrying stuff and it was no surprise the coverage went way beyond the Sunday Mirror which broke the story, with headlines around the world. Here are a few examples:
Confidential Heathrow Airport security files involving the Queen found on USB stick on street The Courier Mail (Australia)
Heathrow Airport launches probe after USB stick with security files found CNN
Heathrow investigates after Queen's security details 'found on USB drive discovered lying in street' The Telegraph
You would imagine that the world’s busiest airport would have prepared for a significant data breach as part of its crisis communication training, so how did it deal with the situation in the real world.
Well, it issued a statement in response to the initial story and follow ups.
It said: “Heathrow’s top priority is the safety and security of our passengers and colleagues.
"The UK and Heathrow have some of the most robust aviation security measures in the world and we remain vigilant to evolving threats by updating our procedures on a daily basis.
“We have reviewed all of our security plans and are confident that Heathrow remains secure.
“We have also launched an internal investigation to understand how this happened and are taking steps to prevent a similar occurrence in future."
For me this statement is completely the wrong way round.
In a crisis media management situation, particularly one that raises security fears, people want to know what action is being taken to reduce the risk and to prevent anything like this happening again. But this statement does not get to this until the end.
Instead it begins with vague, passive and, let’s be honest, pretty meaningless sentences, which reveal almost nothing about how this security breach is being managed.
The statement also lacks any empathy for people using the airport who may feel more concerned about travelling as a result of this story. Effective crisis statements put people first and show an understanding for how they may be feeling.
Here is what I think it should have said: "We have launched an internal investigation to understand how this incident happened and are already taking steps to make sure this cannot happen again in the future.
“We appreciate that some people may be concerned about security at the airport following these reports but we have reviewed all of our plans and are confident that Heathrow remains secure.
“We have some of the most robust aviation security measures in the world and we remain vigilant to evolving threats by updating our procedures on a daily basis.”
This is pretty much the same content as was in the original statement – minus the opening corporate line – but it is now in a much more impactful order.
The other thing I found with the original statement was that it was almost impossible to find and I failed to find it on either the Heathrow Airport Twitter account or website.
Perhaps this was a strategy to try to play down the story, but in a crisis situation, particularly one which is being reported globally, the best approach is to get your message out to journalists and customers – especially when they may be in need of some reassurance.
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