Hillsborough Disaster | It’s Never Too Late to Apologize

On April 15th, 1989, 3,000 Liverpool fans violently crowded standing-room terraces during a soccer match at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, Britain, crushing hundreds of people against the stadium barriers. Within minuets, 96 people died of asphyxiation, initiating a horrifying tragedy that was soon known as the Hillsborough Disaster.

The disaster quickly became a source of major controversy when British police reported drunken fans were the cause of the incident, claiming the victim’s deaths were due to their own rambunctious and drunken behavior. The police refused to take responsibility, and up until recently, the victim’s suffering had not been acknowledged.

Viewing this disaster from a public relations standpoint, it’s clear that the police conducted some of the worst crisis management in history. A multitude of things were not handled correctly after the disaster occurred, but most distinctly, the police and government committed two PR sins: they were not transparent about what had truly happened at the event, and they blamed the publics for their misfortune.

In Liverpool on Tuesday, a vigil was held after the disclosure of the report into the Hillsborough stadium tragedy.

As PR professionals, the chance that a situation this extreme would be encountered is small. However, this disaster can be used as an example of what not to do and learn from it. 23 years later, apologizes were finally given.

It’s never too late to apologize

On Wednesday, September 12th, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologized on behalf of the government for the “appalling deaths” of the victims of the disaster. After a new inquiry had taken place, Cameron acknowledged that the police had covered up and altered the official story on what happened that day. “The Liverpool fans were not the cause of the disaster. The panel has quite simply found no evidence in support of allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans,” said Cameron (New York Times).

Cameron also indicated that the new inquests could potentially lead legal action to compensate the families of victims and even criminal charges against police officers involved.

I think that Cameron exhibited some great crisis management tools in his apology. They were:

1) Empathy. Cameron sympathized with the victims and reassured that they had been treated unjustly

2) Transparency. He was transparent by providing as much detail as possible, squelching and preventing false rumors

4) Legitimacy. He supported his message with evidence of the new inquiry panel

3) Constructivism. Cameron discussed future actions by lawyers

Ideally, this situation would have been handled very differently, and the apology would have happened much sooner. Though it was 23 years late, an apology is an apology. The most important people involved in the issue, the victims, were pleased that their issues were acknowledged. When is comes to public relations, an entity must always acknowledge the suffering of an unhappy public, which the government has finally done for the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. In PR, it’s never too late too apologize<


One comment

  1. Olivia,

    I think your summation of the events that transpired as well as the public relations result were spot-on. I remember reading about this tragedy in another course, and being intrigued by it. However, nothing was said of the public relations use afterward to try and repair the damage that was done. Now I see why nothing was said: the apology was 23 years later!

    I find your modular look into the reasons of success of the “better late than never” apology were also accurate. The empathy and transparency I believe were most crucial and necessary. It was an interesting choice to look into and an accurate observation of the public relations work that came into play. Good job.

    – Michael

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