Lesson from the Lusitania


Lesson from the Lusitania

If history is our greatest teacher, there's lots to learn from Erik Larson's latest best-selling book Dead Wake, which retells the story of the sinking of the Lusitania and its 1,198 passengers, including 123 US civilians, by a German U-boat in 1915-an event that's often acknowledged as pivotal in driving a previously reluctant America into World War I.

As is true with many retellings of disasters and catastrophes, the human tragedy associated with this saga is gut wrenching-and largely avoidable.

*         The German government took out prominent advertisements in US newspapers warning Americans not to cross the Atlantic, but few passengers were dissuaded and cruise line authorities, including the captain, downplayed the risks.

*         British intelligence had intercepted numerous German communications indicating the precise movements of their submarines-and their recent attacks on merchant ships-but Lusitania's captain received only the vaguest of warnings, despite the availability of this life-saving information.

*         Once hit, unlike the Titanic, an adequate number of lifeboats were available.  But in the 18 minutes from when the torpedo struck the ship and its nosedive into the Atlantic barely a handful were actually launched.

*         Life preservers were a relatively new innovation at the time and most passengers were uninstructed as to how to wear them and, as a result, most were condemned to float face down in the water until they were drowned.

*         Once the Lusitania sunk, those who did survive-and were swimming, floating or in lifeboats-had to endure up to 20 hours before help arrived, even though they were within eyeshot of the Irish coast.  Why?  For fear of also being sunk by the German sub, larger vessels were ordered to stay away from the scene.

The number of missteps, as with any crisis, go on and on.  And there is no wisdom in the 20/20 hindsight of could-of, would-of, should-of.  But for those of us who are charged with protecting the reputation of our employers or clients -and steering them out of trouble-a few simple truths emerge:

1.      It's not panic that crisis managers should fear, it's inaction.

2.      It's not the lack of information that is responsible for inaction, it's the failure to share it.

3.      It's not the lack of resources that's the biggest problem in a crisis, it's not knowing how to use them.

4.      Never assume invincibility.  The Lusitania was the fastest cruise ship of the day and widely considered imperious to attack.  It wasn't.

5.      Be lucky-At the time, only a relatively small fraction of submarine-fired torpedoes hit their targets and actually exploded.  This one did.

This is an old tale, but as fresh as today.  Just months after BP's oil rig infamously exploded off the coast of Louisiana in 2010, one of the engineers who miraculously escaped with his life confessed on national television to 60 Minutes, "Everything they said couldn't go wrong, went wrong."  So true.

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