Leadership Deficit – Hillsborough 1989: Crisis Communication & Integrity Failures

Crisis Communication – Double Injustice & Deep Integrity Failures

96 Souls RIP – The 1989 Hillsborough Football Double Tragedy:

“One of the greatest injustices of the 20th century” 

“The greatest cover up in British legal history”

This case study based presentation completed in early 2013 explores the communication and integrity failures in the wake of a tragic crisis which led to the death of 96 children, women and men and 766 injuries, supporters of Liverpool Football Club, crushed during avoidable overcrowding while attending a football match on 15th April 1989.

With 94 dying on the day, “Hillsborough” was the worst sporting tragedy in British history, compounded by an institutional cover-up described by a subsequent government minister as “one of the greatest injustices of the 20th century”  and a barrister as “the greatest cover up in British legal history”, which remained unrevealed and unresolved for almost a quarter of a century.

Hillsborough Stadium in Yorkshire, Northern England, the home of Sheffield Wednesday FC, was the neutral venue for a major FA Cup semifinal, contested by double European Cup winners Nottingham Forest FC and one of the world’s most famous football/soccer clubs, six times European champions Liverpool FC, owned since 2010 by Fenway Sports Group, whose other interests include the Boston Red Sox, the nine time World Series winning US Major League professional baseball team based in Boston, Massachusetts.

The tragedy happened when senior police ordered the opening of a gate into the stadium shortly before the match was due to kick-off, rather than be delayed when motorway roadworks made progress to Sheffield far slower than the previous year, when the same teams met at the same venue and the Liverpool fans were also exclusively allocated to the same, smaller and now infamous Leppings Lane stand.

As a result even more Liverpool supporters entered the two already-full, non-seated, standing-only, central sections of the stand, which led to the crush, rather than these being closed off and fans guided to the sides of the stand where there was plenty of free space, as had happened in prior years when managed by people with considerable experience of handling major events, especially football matches.

Although the ground itself was subsequently found to be substandard, which contributed to problems also arising in prior years, had wiser decisions been made at the time by more experienced senior personnel, such as those responsible for “crowd control” at the prior year’s match who DID close off entrances to those portions of terraces which were full, it is likely no significant tragedy would have arisen.

The senior officer responsible initially misinterpreted the “crowd control” situation, perhaps due to a “cognitive bias”, reacted slowly, did not recognise the primary nature of the problem and whose failure to call a “major incident” led to delays in responding to the emergency.

This delay resulted in over 40 available ambulances remaining outside the ground and over 80 medics un-utilised, the very people with the training which could perhaps have saved many of the lives of those who were at the time suffocating from the overcrowding created crush.

Instead of subsequently accepting responsibility for his slow reaction and evident mis-management, he was not slow to engage in “blame shift” when he almost immediately started blaming the fans themselves for the tragedy, which only compounded the sense of loss and injustice,  especially when the degree of  incompetence and negligence became apparent, including poor planning and mis-management on the day.

It transpired that preparations outside the ground were inadequate and not up to the standard of prior years, the stadium did not have an up-to-date safety certificate and the club had not prioritised safety related spending.

The tragedy ultimately led to football stadia being required to be “all-seater” for clubs playing in the top two divisions of English football.

Initial police public communication about the Hillsborough crisis not only failed to address the exigency of the moment and failed to acknowledge any responsibility for the emergency, rather was focused on blaming the victims (fans) themselves for the human disaster, including denying they had ordered the opening of the gate which they falsely claimed had been broken down by the fans. A CCTV video of the events as they arose disappeared.

Collusion with parliamentarians resulted in almost immediate media headlines uncritically reflecting the “attack the accuser” spin of the police communication and initial global misreporting of the tragedy.

The disaster actually arose due to managerial incompetence, not the “hooliganism” or troublesome fans the police initially believed to be responsible and then tried to use as an excuse.

Had the most senior police involved displayed the courage and integrity required during challenges and decided to “own up” and “accept responsibility”, which are amongst the recommended Crisis Communication strategies, especially those most likely to safeguard rather than erode the critical qualities of Trust and Reputation, the families of the bereaved and other groups could have been saved an almost quarter-century and seemingly fruitless campaign for “Justice for the 96”.

As a result of the initial managerial inexperience and ineptitude displayed at the most senior levels by the police present at the stadium, only one policewoman initially came to the assistance of the stricken fans while they were being crushed and only one of 43 ambulances with 86 medics parked outside gained admittance to the ground.

The failure to recognise and call a “major incident” led to delays in responding to the emergency.

The fans had to play and replace the role of emergency services, given the absence of official assistance for far too long, a crisis not being officially advised until it finally dawned on management what was actually happening – a crush due to fans being directed to a full part of the stadium which the previous year had been closed off by a far more big-match experienced senior policeman when it had reached its capacity. 

As a consequence of misrepresentation of particularly low integrity, deep disrespect and poor professionalism, by police, officials, politicians and journalists, one high volume national daily newspaper, “The Sun”, which rapidly supported the Thatcher government’s initial “hooliganism” spin rather than undertaking it’s own investigation, or perhaps ignored the available facts, has been substantially boycotted in Liverpool since 1989, while the many institutional failings led to a 24 year campaign for justice and the truth to be revealed.

Despite the 1990 Taylor Report finding that the main cause of the disaster was a failure of control by South Yorkshire Police, the Director of Public Prosecutions found no evidence to justify prosecution of any individuals or bodies and extraordinarily rumours blaming the fans not only persisted but were permitted to be perpetuated when those in charge could so easily have quashed them.

The subsequent Coroner’s Inquests ruled in 1991 that all the deaths were “accidental”, leading to the bereaved families continuing with their attempts to have the case re-examined. Their efforts seemed to have finally failed when in 1997 a judge found no justification for a new inquiry, although this did not prevent the families and other groups persisting with their campaign for truth and justice.

During the 20th anniversary commemoration of the tragedy in 2009 , the Liverpool born then UK Government Minister for Health and former Culture Minister or “Secretary”, Andy Burnham, an Everton FC fan who was officiating at the event at Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium, was visibly moved by the persistent chanting of “Justice for the 96”.

Burnham subsequently took steps which led to further pressure for the full facts to be revealed by way of the establishment of an “Independent Panel”, headed by the Bishop of Liverpool, which gained access to 450,000 documents. 

The September 2012 findings of the “Hillsborough Independent Panel” completely exonerated the fans of responsibility, stating amongst many other findings that:

  • “the safety of the crowd admitted to the terrace was compromised at every level’,
  • “the fans were not the cause of the disaster”,
  • “deficiencies were well known and further overcrowding problems at the turnstiles in 1987 and on the terrace in 1988 were additional indications of the inherent dangers to crowd safety”
  • “the risks were known and the crush in 1989 was foreseeable” and
  • “the bereaved families met a series of obstacles in their search for justice.”

The superbly written and unambiguous report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel led to an acknowledgement by the Lord Chief Justice of a “profound, almost palpable belief that justice has not been done and that it cannot be done without and until the full truth is revealed”.

In September 2012 Burnham told the BBC that he regarded the Hillsborough disaster as “one of the greatest injustices of the 20th century” and said a fresh inquest into the tragedy “is now essential”, one which would have to hear all the statements from the police officers before they were instructed to amend their statements at the time, consequently there needed to be proceedings against those who “wilfully distorted the truth”.

Burnham’s comments to the BBC echoed public sentiment at the time – “I won’t be able to rest until that verdict of accidental death is overturned and removed from the official record”.

Unlike those most culpable for the tragedy, who did not take responsibility for their actions or indeed their significant inactivity as the crisis unfolded, not for the first time then British Prime Minister David Cameron did not lack the courage to apologise in parliament for wrongdoing and cover-ups perpetrated by his predecessors in authority, referring to the findings as:

“deeply distressing” and saying “with the weight of the new evidence in the report it’s right for me today as prime minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96… On behalf of the government, and indeed of our country, I am profoundly sorry that this double injustice has been left uncorrected for so long.”

This presentation highlights many Crisis Management failures and particularly addresses the low integrity associated with many instances of what Crisis Communication expert Benoit would refer to as Denial and Blame Shift as well as Counterattack, Silence and Provocation, five of the least ethical of fifteen communication strategies outlined in the presentation. The most unethical of these strategies could, unfortunately, have been written with Hillsborough in mind.

Reprehensibly, those who had already suffered the entirely avoidable loss of their family members had to endure for almost a quarter of a century accusations that somehow it was the victims not the authorities who were responsible for the tragedy.

The presentation also indicates how perpetuation of the original and immediate false accusations, assisted by other institutions of State failing to acknowledge in their deliberations that the police may have been misrepresenting the facts, permitted one senior lawyer to refer to the Crisis Communication as the “greatest cover up in British legal history.”

The presentation was prepared in late 2012 / early 2013 for the 2013 International Crisis and Risk Communication conference at UCF, the University of Central Florida, with the wonderful co-operation of Andy Kelly and Brian Johnston at the Liverpool Echo newspaper, who were superb hosts for three days in their lively newsroom.

The earlier part of the presentation describes some of the history of Liverpool FC, including photos and reporting from many past issues of  “The Echo”.

One of the final photos of blue and red Everton FC and Liverpool FC mugs of tea, side by side on a tray, was taken in the kitchen of the Liverpool Echo, staffed by supporters of both clubs, indicative of the bond, friendly rivalry and sense of injustice shared by the fans of both top division football clubs, one with 19 league titles and the other with 9, separated only by half a mile and Stanley Park – a public park in the exceptionally warm, welcoming and fun-loving city of Liverpool, with the locals or “Scousers” known for their great sense of humour.

Indeed between 1982 and 1988 the “First Division” league (which became the “Premier League” in 1992) was only won by Merseyside teams, twice by Everton and 4 times by Liverpool, with the two teams also competing against each other in two FA Cup Finals during this period, in 1986 and 1989, with fans traveling together to the finals at the Wembley stadium in London. Both were close matches won by Liverpool, including one held a few weeks after the tragedy, which happened on the day that Everton won their own semi-final.

In 1984, when Everton won the FA Cup, Liverpool beat Everton in the other domestic cup final also held at Wembley, the League Cup, after a replay. Everton’s 9th and most recent league title was in 1987.

At the 24th Hillsborough memorial at Anfield in 2013, Everton fan and club Chairman Bill Kenwright said that instead of experiencing euphoria driving home from their cup semifinal win, the journey was “terrible” and instead felt like “relegation”. He praised the tenacity of the mothers of children born in the city of Liverpool, who always fought for their families, saying the authorities took on the wrong city when they denied justice.

Liverpool were pipped to the League title in 1989 in the last match of that tragic season by a last minute winner scored by Arsenal, who had started in second place that morning. Their victory at Liverpool’s famous home ground Anfield deprived Liverpool of a League and Cup Double and what might have transpired to have been a hat-trick of titles, as they responded to that disappointment by winning the league the following year in 1990, their 18th title.

It would be a further 30 years before the club would win the league again, in 2020, its 19th league win and first Premier League title. During much of this period the families of the 96 fans who died as a result of attending a poorly organised and mis-managed football match had to fight against all odds to achieve “Justice for the 96”.

This 2013 presentation tells the story of many of the integrity failings and quite deliberate, premeditated crisis mis-communication, which was not officially found to be deeply untruthful and dishonest until the Independent Panel reported in September 2012.

Had those in charge had the courage to “do the right thing” and immediately accept responsibility for their mistakes, everyone involved, including themselves and the reputation of the body which employs them to serve and protect the public and administer not deny justice, would have been far better off.

They would have been saved from having to continue with the original extreme degree of deceit, deception and misrepresentation which followed the tragedy which was allowed by the most senior officials to be perpetuated for almost a quarter of a century, while the perceived necessity to continue with this line of mis-communication could have been avoided.

Churchill may have said “never has so much been owed by so many to so few” and the same could be said about those in charge at Hillsborough who invented, fabricated, intimidated and apportioned blame to the innocent victims. Surely the conscience of some involved who chose unwisely must have been active when they saw the degree of harm the few caused to the many for so long.

Some of the integrity lessons the presentation cites include:

  • “owning up” beats “cover up”, no matter how difficult this may initially seem
  • people in authority should not be treated any differently from anyone else and consistently need to recognise they have a far greater responsibility to show integrity in all their dealings
  • true leadership with integrity requires “courage to do the right thing… irrespective”
  • consideration of the impact on the key and related qualities of Trust and Reputation by all concerned before taking any decision is far more likely to produce a better longer term outcome…
  • “There is no right way to do a wrong thing” (Blanchard and Peale)
  • “Everyone knows the right thing to do, the hard part is doing it”……

The Independent Panel report completely exonerated the fans of responsibility, stating that with better management the crisis could and should have been averted. A newly appointed senior police officer with little “big game” management experience failed to introduce some of the measures which had avoided a crisis in prior years, despite problems arising then which should have led to far better planning and management of this major sporting occasion.

The UK’s greatest sporting disaster was compounded by significant integrity failures. These started within minutes of the tragedy unfolding, including CCTV tapes disappearing, victims being blamed and evidence manipulation, which led a senior barrister to describe the aftermath as “the greatest cover up in British legal history”.

If only those who decided to cover-up rather than own-up and blame others rather than accept responsibility had considered the likely impact on Trust and Reputation, hard won and easily lost, as well as the interests of anyone else bar themselves, indeed those they were employed to prioritise, serve and protect, a great deal of unnecessary trauma experienced by the families of the victims and other groups supporting their cause could have been averted.

If only….

Isn’t it extraordinary how those who choose to blame and cover-up to protect their reputation end up damaging trust irreparably, just because they made the wrong choices and then lacked the courage to tell the truth when their initial cover-up was exposed?

If they assumed the cover-up would be reported in the newspapers and on radio, tv and internet, would they find it easier to accept responsibility and engage in open and honest communication – and be respected for doing so no matter the difficulty they thought this would pose?

Mistakes and crises are inevitable, no matter the precautions. They are perhaps the ultimate test of character and integrity, bringing out the best in the best and worst in the worst.

This 2013 presentation was prepared with the invaluable assistance of The Liverpool Echo newspaper for an International Crisis and Risk Communication Conference so the story could be told, others may learn from the experience and notably by seeing the impact of “doing the wrong thing” decide to make the opposite choices and advise others to do so when they face their challenges and crises  because, at the end of the day, there is no right way to do a wrong thing:


HILLSBOROUGH 1989 – International Crisis & Risk Communication Conference USA 2013



The original verdict of “accidental death” was quashed in December 2012 following years of campaigning by families, survivors and supporters and the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report.

Subsequent to this presentation being prepared, a second set of inquests were held into each of the tragic and very avoidable deaths, commencing on 1 April 2014 at Warrington.

After a hearing which took just over two years, on April 26th 2016 the Inquest Jury unequivocally concluded on 14 matters including that the 96 Liverpool FC supporters who lost their lives after the crush at Hillsborough were unlawfully killed due to negligent failures by police and ambulance services to fulfil their duty of care, the design of the stadium contributed to the crush and  the fans played no role in causing the tragedy.

The 2016 Inquest Jury also found that the 96 Liverpool fans were “unlawfully killed” at Hillsborough, ending a 27-year wait for “justice for the 96” Liverpool supporters who went to watch their team play a football match and never came home, without any individuals displaying the courage or integrity to accept responsibility for the avoidable disaster.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.


You’ll Never Walk Alone

Home Secretary Statement on the 2016 Inquest Findings

Comment on the 2016 Inquest Findings

Hillsborough Disaster Timeline


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