More than 27 years after that horrible incident on April 15, 1989, when 96 soccer fans were crushed to death, the truth finally finds the light of day. From the beginning, police officers reported how the crowd was drunk and disorderly, many without tickets, rushing to gain entry to the semi-final match. At the latest trial, lasting longer than any other in the U.K. – more than two years – police leadership was confronted with the evidence of their lies and cover-up.
In some ways, it was the perfect storm. An uncompromising and regimented leadership unwilling to ever look at any possibility of an error on the part of officers, a new officer, Duckenfield, put in place to oversee the semi-final shortly before what was by all accounts the force’s largest annual operation.
Duckenfield finally admitted he was not even aware it was the police’s responsibility to ensure public safety and crowd control at the event, nor did he bother to obtain even the most rudimentary information about the layout of the facilities or where problems might occur.
Once the horror of that day happened, it seems every effort was made to blame anyone and everyone rather than recognize where the fault was and fix it. So began the orchestrated release of information about excessive drinking on the fans’ behalf, rude and unacceptable behavior from fans toward the brave and valiant police officers. It was a tale that took nearly 27 years to finally disprove. And only now can survivors, and officers begin to heal from the event.
96 people died, 37 were teenagers. The youngest was 10 years old and in the aftermath, 58 children lost a parent. The last to die survived four years on life support. Many of the officers went on to develop problems with alcohol, not allowed to even hint at the ugly truth.
From a crisis PR viewpoint, everything was handled wrong. The best advice in a crisis is to be transparent and get the truth out as quickly as possible. The Hillsborough disaster was shrouded in lies and blame to cover up the truth, and no one will ever say that 27 years is getting the truth out quickly. The real shame beyond the lies is that there were so many more lives torn apart for 27 years aching for recognition that those who died were not to blame.
For reporters and journalists, hopefully it serves as a reminder to check the facts instead of relying solely on reports from those who seemingly benefit from what is reported. For leaders facing a crisis situation, the truth will come out eventually – make sure you’re on the right side of that story.