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How Not to Run Your PR: Lessons from Flight 9525

The tragedy of Germanwings Flight 9525 is an example of a PR disaster writ largely by its parent company, Lufthansa. How should a corporation or individual react in light of drastically damaging but uncertain facts? It’s not difficult. Here’s how.

1. Have a plan from the get-go.

Lufthansa is a commercial aviation company. It is not impossible one of its aircraft would crash. Have a crisis communications plan that can be altered to fit any circumstance (weather, hijacking, pilot error, mechanical failure, etc.). Prepare the plan at the formation of the company.

2. Embrace the power of an apology, even if you think you aren’t necessarily at fault.

As I said in “After the Oil Spill: An Introduction to Crisis Management,” an apology is a PR miracle drug. The narrative of the crash was atypical from the start. A bit of humility about the possible truth would have helped, i.e., “At this time, we have no known explanation for the crash, and are working around the clock to determine what happened. We are heartbroken at the loss of life. We are as saddened and shocked as anyone, and are doing everything we can to provide support to the families involved.” Start with an apology to pause the narrative.

Think before you speak is never more apropros.

3. Do NOT assume facts not in evidence.

Not having said facts does not mean they don’t exist. Lufthansa insisted early on, and quite mistakenly, that Andreas Lubitz was healthy enough to pilot. It was a huge mistake to make that call so soon and it did not take investigators long to prove otherwise. Even if you THINK you know, wait 24 hours to disclose any defense. No hoped-for grace is worth backtracking on the facts.

4. Be upfront about your process and buy time.

If you don’t know, simply say you are cooperating with investigators and hope to get to the bottom and true heart of the issue as soon as humanly possible. Do not rush into a statement. Spinning a narrative before knowing the facts requires even broader damage control down the road.

5. Respond as your customers want you to respond.

NOT as your attorneys want you to respond. I am prepared to get some flak on this one. Save your company in the short-term and long-term with honesty and compassion. Legal fees and payments will not kill your company, but loss of trust will. “We are baffled by the immediate fact pattern and want to say we are as committed as ever to our customers’ safety, and determining what happened to put them in jeopardy.” Authentically confess and move on.

Susan Kostal is a legal marketing and media coach specializing in the Bay Area legal industry. Find more great content on Twitter @skostal.

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