"Authentic communication is essential in a crisis"

Karl Wüthrich, Attorney at law and Dr. Filippo Th. Beck, Partner, Wenger Plattner

IRF is 20 years old. Together with your team at Wenger Plattner, you have worked on the Swissair case for some time, first as trustees and then as receivers. With hindsight, what have been the highlights of your communication over the last 20 years?

Filippo Th. Beck: Definitely the first press conference in the Marriott Hotel that we organised with you.

The creditors' meeting in Winterthur? The report from EY?

Karl Wüthrich: The press conference was certainly decisive. It allowed us to establish a foundation which has meant there have been hardly any communication problems in the last twenty years. Of course, there has been the occasional negative report or critical voice but these have always been manageable. This press conference allowed us to be perceived as well organised, professional communicators. Creditors' meetings and similar events are simply a part of the process. They were only unusual in that they were sometimes large events with very many stakeholders.

What was the purpose of communication with the wider public beyond the group of directly affected creditors? What is the functional role of communication in a process as prominent as this?

Wüthrich: Essentially, communication allows the process to take place through orderly channels rather than being disrupted by individual parties such as creditors or other stakeholders. It is also about managing expectations not just among immediate creditors but among the public at large. If we promise a liquidating dividend of 10 percent and we only achieve 9.5 percent, no one is happy. If we predict 9 percent and achieve 9.5 percent, the mood is better. Managing expectations is key here.

Beck: At the beginning, another challenge was explaining to such a wide variety of people what is involved in this kind of process and what its objective is. These are complicated legal processes which are often difficult for lay people to understand. In particular, the thousands of people still formally employed by the companies wanted to know how things would progress and what they could expect. Our goal was to inform them and to allay fears.

What advice would you give to a trustee or receiver finding themselves in a similar position today?

Wüthrich: I would recommend that they read the last-but-one issue of "ZZZ" magazine. It contains an article I wrote about communication during a composition moratorium.

Could you give me the main points of the article?

Wüthrich: Firstly, you have to explain to all stakeholders what will happen, how long it will last and the legal steps which have to be taken. We return to management of expectations. You also have to make sure that you, as the trustee, aren't seen as the opposition. You mustn't end up in the line of fire. After all, there will always be people seeking to influence or even interrupt the official process. The trustee should be perceived as neutral and must communicate appropriately with all stakeholder groups. Calm, consistent communication plays a big role here.

For a long time, you've been publishing a weekly report on the latest developments in the process. What role have these weekly reports played?

Wüthrich: Firstly, we were able to demonstrate that the process was being run in an orderly and professional manner. Secondly, the weekly report meant we could avoid the need to constantly respond to media enquiries. Journalists knew that the latest update on the process would be published on Friday along with the next steps. This communication strategy was very helpful.

Beck: There was a big learning curve. I don't think we have ever had a receivership case with this level of media interest. We worked with you to develop a strategy for moving forward. You were very helpful in that regard.

I agree that the weekly report, in conjunction with the website, was a very good idea. It allowed you to take the reins rather than always working under the pressure of recent events or media enquiries. When it comes to the media, though, occasional interviews and face-to-face contact are important. Mr Wüthrich, how did you manage becoming, shall we say, famous overnight?

Wüthrich: I think there are a couple of things that one can do either well or badly. I maintain that it's important to take a humble approach and not to allow the press to put you on a pedestal. After all, the same press will ensure that pedestal breaks given the first opportunity. We were quite successful in that virtually no press articles were ever published concerning me as a private individual. Instead, they focused on my role as a receiver or trustee. I would never have allowed a journalist into my office. This is my office and not the public's office. Nor would I have allowed a journalist into my home.

Beck: Sometimes we had very strange requests for photographs. We always turned them down. Be professional, always stick to your guns and things will work OK. Doing anything else will come back to haunt you.

Fast forward 20 years. How far have you come in the process? What is completed and what is still in progress?

Wüthrich: We are on the home straight. The Flightlease process, the smallest, that is complete. The SAirLines process can be completed in the next few months. When it comes to the SAirGroup, there is still one issue outstanding. The completion of this process will take more time. In the case of SAirGroup, there are around 12,000 creditors with whom the process must be concluded and to whom money must be paid out. This is a very involved process. Swissair is essentially stuck in a dispute with Sabena and unfortunately the other party is not prepared to look for rational solutions in this area. I fear that this tale could continue for another few years.

Twenty years ago, could you have imagined that it would take so long?

Wüthrich: I knew these processes took a long time. The process of determining the amount claimed by Sabena with respect to SAirGroup and SAirLines took ten years all by itself! You could try to speed everything up but I'm sure that would only lead to a poorer result for the creditors.

What else do you feel you've learnt in that time?

Wüthrich: What I've always valued in our collaboration – and with hindsight this has proven to be critical – is that you never tried to persuade us to communicate anything we didn't want to. This meant we could always give our version of the story in our own words. Authentic communication is essential in a crisis – of that I am certain. You have never stood between us and the public or the media as communication advisers. Instead, you have supported us in the background. And that's how it should be in a crisis situation.

IRF Reputation AG
Rämistrasse 4
CH-8024 Zurich
+41 43 244 81 44

IRF Reputation in Zürich

IRF Reputation AG
Rue du Commerce 4
CH-1204 Geneva
+41 43 244 81 44

IRF Reputation in Genf