Issues and crisis management are core agency strengths but it’s rare to be on the consumer-facing side of it. That’s what happened during a family skiing holiday in St Anton this year, which was a stark reminder of the pros and cons of information shut-down.
When I collected my children from their ski lesson, their instructor told me there had been an avalanche in the ironically named Happy Valley. He was clearly worried and not without reason. It had happened at 3pm on Easter Monday on the busiest blue run down to the village and, by the number of helicopters circling overhead, the outcome was looking bleak. We heard that there were 30 fatalities.
Scanning the news for information, I could find nothing other than three tweets from other people at the resort. By the morning we heard that two people were dead and four were missing. Fortunately, as it turned out, nobody was hurt. Four people had been buried by the avalanche but had been rescued immediately, unharmed.
It was an interesting exercise in information shut-down. The officials remained tight-lipped and we were told the policy is always to play down these events – no surprise when skiing is the linchpin of the local economy. But the rumour mill was rife. It was the topic of conversation for the rest of the week and wild speculation as to how many people were killed continued. It was very fortunate that nobody was hurt and a demonstration of the speed and efficiency of St Anton’s emergency response. But was information shut-down the right response or should an official message have put people’s mind at rest and stopped the rumour mongering. One for debate…