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Managing communications during an inquest

An article by Alder Media

The purpose of inquests, overseen by the coroner, is to find out who the deceased was; how, when and where they died; and the particulars to be registered. Simple enough. But if it is an employee, a customer or a bystander who has died, your business could be tied up in the process for years. Handling this kind of crisis in all its phases requires a systematic approach. In this article, Alder Media outline the various stages of the inquest process and how businesses can best prepare their media responses.

Incident

Whatever the circumstances, your organisation must be at pains to show a human face.

All too often, the threat of legal action causes communications paralysis, and that is when silence can be interpreted as evasive, callous and cynically self-interested.

Legal teams and insurers are often concerned about the potential extent of liability, but it is also vital to consider the longer term issue of brand or individual reputation.

An apology, if handled intelligently and with humanity, shows a responsible, professional and, above all, humane approach is being taken by an organisation. 

It is, of course, essential to establish with your lawyers what you can and cannot say. But whatever you do, avoid sounding grudging or legalistic. A little humanity goes a long way.

In rare cases where a full apology would be inadvisable for legal reasons, there should still be a seemly expression of regret, and a pledge to co-operate fully with any investigations that will follow.

Consider the impact an incident might have on your own staff. This is a time to take a sensitive lead, keeping them abreast of the organisation’s position and any further developments.

Aftermath

The situation will be marked by events tied to different stages of the process. These are:

  • The funeral, possibly with attendant media coverage, and further reaction and comment, including on social media, from the bereaved family and the public.
  • The launch of formal investigations, possibly by multiple agencies or regulators.
  • The inquest hearing and its outcome.
  • Publication of investigation reports.
  • The possibility of legal action being taken against the organisation.
  • Court hearings and outcome.

All of these stages are newsworthy, and the organisation must be consistent in its responses throughout.

Inquest

It is Coroner’s officer best practice to work closely with bereaved families and witnesses to ensure they know what to expect.

Nevertheless, inquests are emotionally charged proceedings, dredging up painful and unwelcome memories just at the time when those concerned might just have begun to come to terms with what has happened.

Inquests are held in all manner of public buildings, and these can present problems unique to each environment.

Here is a cautionary tale. A large company had to give evidence at an inquest following the death of a customer on its premises. The hearing was held in a bright, modern building. There was a large waiting area, flanked by glass fronted meeting rooms.

As people gathered in the waiting room, the lawyers representing the company wanted to hold a final briefing with key representatives, and took them into one of the meeting rooms.

At the end of the meeting, in attempt to break the tension, someone made an innocuous, light-hearted comment entirely unrelated to the proceedings in hand, and a ripple of laughter passed round the group.

This was noticed by family members of the deceased in the waiting area. They were appalled. All they could see was a large group of suited executives openly laughing on the day of their loved one’s inquest.

Lawyers will have briefed your organisation on witness requirements. Your checklist should include a short statement ready to read out to journalists at the end of the hearing.

Its precise content will depend on factors including the original circumstances of the death, probable outcome of the hearing, and the next steps – e.g. responding to regulatory requirements in the wake of the incident, or facing further legal action.

It should certainly include a repeat of any apology made earlier, and a genuinely human expression of regret, made with humility and compassion.

Being prepared

We suggest you consider the following preparatory points:

  • Give consideration to the possibility of handling a situation involving a fatality as part of a well-rehearsed crisis management plan.
  • Make the bereaved family a priority.
  • Have statements drawn up for immediate release following an accident or death, post-inquest, and after any subsequent legal hearings. Even if there isn’t much to say, it is far better to respond than to remain silent, and do so with genuine empathy.
  • Be consistent in all communications.

It is impossible to ameliorate the raw pain of bereavement. But it is all too easy to make it even worse through clumsy, thoughtless handling.

Author: Anthony Longden, Consultant, Alder Media

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This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.