Police slipped up several times communicating in the wake of the Whakaari/White Island tragedy - leaving room for doubt and speculation when grieving families needed certainty, crisis management experts say.

Their criticism comes in the wake of several mis-steps by police, including announcing a criminal investigation into the deaths at Whakaari, then backtracking, as well as abruptly ending a press conference when questions were not to their liking.

Police, who have also been criticised for providing too little information to families, say the response to the disaster was fast-moving with a priority on keeping families informed.

However, once the operation is complete, they would review the response, including communications, through the normal debrief process.

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The communications effort had been a series of "stumbles", starting with the criminal investigation claim, according to PR expert Janet Wilson.

"When you do that, you're creating doubt at a time when all people are wanting is certainty. They're wanting someone, somewhere to be certain about what to do so they can feel assured that it's all in safe hands."

Police should have explained
Police should have explained "clearly and succinctly" within 24 hours what the process would be to retrieve bodies, crisis management expert says. Photo / White Island Flights

Police had also failed to explain clearly and succinctly what the process was to retrieve the bodies.

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"To be fair to them they're starting to do that now but they should have done it... right from the get go," she said.

"Everyone's very grief-stricken, they're feeling very wretched and sad.

"It's institutions like police who need to provide as much certainty as they can in that environment - and that's a difficult thing."

Wilson expected police would have had a communications plan in place for such an incident.

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"It's basic crisis 101."

Just a day after the eruption Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims, the national operation commander, said a criminal investigation was being opened into the deaths.

Police Minister Stuart Nash quickly backtracked on Tims' statement, saying the deputy commissioner had made a "slip of the tongue".

NZ Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims mistakenly said a criminal investigation had been opened into the White Island eruption. Photo / Mark Mitchell
NZ Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims mistakenly said a criminal investigation had been opened into the White Island eruption. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Crisis management expert and associate Professor of Marketing at Victoria University, Dan Laufer, said police had sent out mixed messages and that could have been avoided.

In the absence of further explanation from police, he had assumed police had received information suggesting the tour operator had ignored warnings about volcanic unrest on the island.

Laufer said the announcement about the criminal investigation was particularly problematic.

"I believe the police have policies and procedures regarding the launch of a criminal investigation, and a premature announcement should not have been made."

Laufer said police should conduct a review to work out how Tims' statement had happened, and make changes in the future to reduce the likelihood of it happening again.

For full transparency, the reasons for the mistake should also be publicly released, he said.

Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement was brought in to front the media in Whakatane following criticism of police handling of the process. Photo / File
Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement was brought in to front the media in Whakatane following criticism of police handling of the process. Photo / File

Sources in the Beehive have told the Herald they were concerned at the way that Tims was handling the situation and his lack of finesse in public communications.

While Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement was brought in to front the media at Whakatāne, Tims remains the National Commander of the operation liaising with national agencies in Wellington.

Clement is well-regarded for his operational nous and attention to detail.

It's understood several other senior police officers, who might normally have handled the operation, were overseas or unavailable this week.

Journalists have expressed frustration at police's refusal to answer questions about the recovery of bodies from the island - especially after a news conference was cut short.

Police Superintendent Bruce Baird abruptly left a press conference in Whakatāne after taking umbrage at reporters' questions about police's plans to retrieve bodies.

On Wednesday, Nash issued a stern warning to police, telling them they need to keep the communication lines open.

He said police needed to be clear and transparent, and the families of those who died need to get their loved ones home.

After meeting with family members who had lost or missing loved ones on Thursday morning, Nash acknowledged the communication between command headquarters and families had not been good enough.

Police Minister Stuart Nash talks to media after a meeting with family of volcano victim Hayden Marshall-Inman in Whakatane on Thursday. Photo / AP - Mark Baker
Police Minister Stuart Nash talks to media after a meeting with family of volcano victim Hayden Marshall-Inman in Whakatane on Thursday. Photo / AP - Mark Baker

"I have heard loud and clear that so far the communication has not met the expectation of the families and we are rectifying that."

Clement had also attended the meeting and a "very honest conversation" took place with the families.

Nash said he understood their frustration and Clement had assured them they would be kept better informed.

Clement last night told media they were also "incredibly important" to the White Island operation.

A police spokesperson said the response to the Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption was dynamic and fast moving.

"Our priority throughout was to provide accurate information and support to the families of those affected as soon possible," he said.

"As soon as families were identified as having been affected they were each assigned a Family Liaison Officer. This included families of those who were missing and those who were injured."

In a situation where next of kin are overseas it could take time to establish a communication and support network, he said.

But all families were kept up to date with new information, he said.

"Families in Whakatāne have been kept regularly updated about the planning and execution for the recovery operation," he said.

"We understand this is a difficult and frustrating time for the families affected."

To date, police had issued 22 media statements/advisories during the operation and have held press conferences in both Wellington and Whakatāne, he said.

"Once the operation is complete, we will review our response (including our communications) through our normal debrief process as part of our commitment to continuous improvement."