Qatar Deals Meekly With Appalling Incident
The State of Qatar faces a delicate crisis that it at first handled indelicately. Its initial communication was not as sensitive as it should have been, though it did better on the second try. It’s instructive to look closely at the language used.
On Oct. 2, female passengers were subjected to strip searches after a newborn infant was found abandoned (thankfully alive) in a trash can at Hamad International Airport (pictured) near Doha. The story first became public in Australia because at least one of the flights was bound for Sydney. The outrage was understandable and grew in intensity. The situation involved diplomatic conversations.
On Oct. 28, the Qatar Government Communications Office issued a release acknowledging the incident. “While the aim of the urgently decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping, the State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveler caused by this action,” it wrote.
The comments are a shift from a government response earlier this week that expressed regret over the exams but defended the actions of officials.
— New York Times reporter Megan Specia
The government said it was launching an investigation, the results of which “will be shared with our international partners.” It said Qatar was committed to passenger safety.
News reports latched onto the “regrets any distress or infringement” language. It wasn’t a full-blown apology and seemed insensitive. The press release was a typical holding statement in that it divulged the basics of the incident and that an investigation would be launched and the results released. But the crisis began weeks earlier. Shouldn’t the State of Qatar have known more at that time and whether an apology was warranted?
The situation developed quickly. Two days later, Qatar put out another press release saying that preliminary investigation results “revealed that standard procedures were violated.” Most noteworthy, it said the people responsible for the strip searches were being referred for prosecution. The government expressed its “sincerest apology for what some female travelers went through as a result of the measures.”
Many news reports headlined the apology. But the change in attitude didn’t go unnoticed. “The comments are a shift from a government response earlier this week that expressed regret over the exams but defended the actions of officials,” New York Times reporter Megan Specia noted.
In both its communications, Qatar said that nothing like this had ever happened before at the airport. Crisis communications is about being prepared for even unlikely scenarios.
The same day of the second release, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne released a statement to “welcome the apology.” The next day, Qatar and Australia put out a joint statement in which the former reiterated its apology and the latter reiterated its acknowledgement thereof.
The beginning of a crisis is always chaotic. It’s hard to communicate that one’s organization is aware of the problem, is investigating and is empathetic. But this was one situation where the initial statement should have been clearer on the facts — and on the apology.
— Thom Weidlich
Photo Credit: Hamad International Airport via Flickr
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