Sometimes things happen in a way that could not be predicted. So when things go wrong, what’s the next step?

Stephanie Canham

Sometimes construction projects go wrong or end users have issues. It’s a fact. For all the effort in negotiating risk positions, things just sometimes happen in a way that could not be predicted or fester until, out of the blue, they become big problems.

The hysteria surrounding the “Walkie Scorchie” and its unexpected “heat rays” is a great example of what can go wrong - when project issues get a very public airing. Quite a few journalists have drawn connections with the “Wobbly Bridge”, and the fall out for the original designers. All these things are expensive to fix, are hard to nip in the bud with the media and can have long-lasting effects on the reputation of the businesses involved.

Of course it is not just design issues that cause problems. Site accidents, fires or even a man dressed as Batman climbing a crane can push a project into the media spotlight. It’s that afternoon phone call - “I think we might have an issue” – that usually starts the ball rolling. Having a plan is critical; what you do over the next few hours will make a real difference to how long you remain in the media spotlight and to your business’s reputation.

The media understandably feed off comment. They are looking for the angle, and if you don’t control your team internally, as well as the project teams, they may get suckered into commenting on the problem. Controlling information flow - which means a single spokesperson and strict instructions to your colleagues, project teams with buy-in from them to adhere to that - is essential. The next step is to feed information. If you just pull down the shutters completely, it becomes more interesting - is there something to hide?

Alongside controlling the flow of information, it is important to have an eye on potential claims. If something has gone wrong, having kept a good and detailed record of agreements, discussions, emails and letters will be invaluable. Controlling correspondence so as to avoid anything that would prejudice your contractual position as well as locating, if your records are not up to date, the contract documents (hopefully signed) and beginning the process of putting insurers on notice will be some of the first steps.

So there you have it - the four key actions to ensure you’re ready for that afternoon phone call:

  • Plan ahead and put a protocol in place
  • Manage the flow of information to the media - get your PR machine, however big or small, rolling
  • Pull together the contracts and correspondence
  • Let the insurers know that something is happening.

The media will eventually move onto the next story but the aftermath can resonate for a long, long time. Reputation is king – be ready at all times to preserve it and get your teams and project teams to buy into and commit to your protocol.

Stephanie Canham is national head of projects and construction at law firm Trowers & Hamlins