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Crisis Communication: From Beach-gate to the Unfriendly Skies

By Suzanne Spurgeon  July 11, 2017

No business or high-profile individual is immune from a communication crisis.  The key to containing it, is a rapid response but  one that doesn't come off as knee-jerk.  Companies that have a crisis plan in place and hold annual drills are better prepared to deal with the real thing.  While you can’t predict the precise form your crisis will take, there are some basic do’s and don’ts for responding that hold true across the board

As a media trainer who works with clients in crisis, I spend a lot of time reviewing public crises and how businesses and individuals respond.

A few recent examples:

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie faces criticism from just about all fronts after a picture appears showing him and his family enjoying a lovely day at the beach—a beach his constituents can’t step foot on because of government shutdown.  The optics are horrific.  In true Christie fashion, the governor pushes back and that could be why his approval rating is 15%. 

Imagine if a business person displayed this kind of attitude in the midst of a crisis.  Think back to 2010, in the early days of the BP oil spill disaster in the gulf.  The CEO was seen at a Yacht race in Britain instead of dealing with the crisis in the U.S.  Again, the optics were bad.  He was soon replaced.

The Kardashian/Jenner clan is dealing with some communication crises these days.  While I can’t fully understand their popularity, there is no denying it.  When they make mistakes, the public takes note.  First Kendall Jenner appears in a tone-deaf Pepsi ad which had to be pulled.  OK, her management should have given her better advise.  Next, she and her sister rip off images of Tupac, Biggie and Ozzie Osborne to sell t-shirts.  The families were understandably upset.  The women apologized and stopped selling the shirts.  Who is advising them these days? These two are so popular with their fans, these missteps probably won’t make a dent.

Their brother Rob Kardashian, on the other hand, is tarnishing the brand.  Posting revenge porn photos of the mother of your baby is disgusting and illegal.  I will say his attorney, Robert Shapiro, is representing him well.  He is not fighting the restraining order which his ex sought.

It’s a good first step.

United Airlines can’t seem to get it right.  First a passenger is physically pulled off a plane and the CEO initially seems to blame the passenger.  The public is then promised that crews would be given more autonomy to make quick decisions to help ease tricky situations on the spot.  But what has happened since then?  A handicapped woman is suing United after she says employees dropped her while helping her into her seat.  This sounds like an accident, but the passenger alleges the airline isn't  responding to her requests for medical compensation.

Another health-related issue involves a baby who got overheated when a plane was held for hours on the tarmac.  While flight attendants appeared to have helped the mother on-board, there was a delay getting the baby off the plane and to proper medical care.

Not every incident is black and white.  But after a string of these occurrences, you have to wonder what is wrong at United. The company should draw up a new passenger bill of rights and visually demonstrate how it works to better serve the public.  The employee unions should demand that their members be given the authority to make the right calls without risk of reprisal from corporate.  The public should be encouraged to make suggestions and share videos—all in an attempt to make flying more pleasant.

Safety will always be the number one priority for any airline, but that doesn’t mean civility and common sense can’t also exist on flights.  That goes for crew and passengers.   I fly a lot and I can’t tell you how many times I have seen passengers trying to jam an oversized bag into the overhead compartment and then argue with a flight attendant who sets him straight. 


Quick list of do’s and don’ts when a communication crisis hits:

  • Do respond quickly with a statement (on social media and then to traditional media)
  • Don’t feel pressure to make it lengthy—this can lead to trouble later on
  • Do not blame anyone—it is too soon to know all the facts
  • Do not assume any internal statement will not find its way to the media. Write accordingly.
  • Give regular updates to avoid endless speculation by the media
  • Assure the public you take this seriously and are investigating







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