Home / Ideas / Don’t Make Things Worse – Have a Plan for PR When Crisis Hits

February 3rd, 2020 5 minute read

Don’t Make Things Worse – Have a Plan for PR When Crisis Hits

It was a public relations disaster that could have been avoided.

In April 2017, United Airlines ordered several passengers off a plane when it determined that it had overbooked a Sunday night flight from Chicago to Louisville. A 69-year-old doctor refused to give up his seat, telling crew members that he had to see patients Monday morning.


Security personnel, following airport protocol, forcibly removed the uncooperative physician, who bumped his head against an armrest, went limp and was dragged off the plane by his arms and legs.


Of course, passengers posted video of the forcible removal and bloodied doctor, and it went viral on social media.


United CEO Oscar Munoz said the next morning: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”


Later Monday, he wrote to employees, “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”


By Tuesday, the sentiment changed to this: “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened.


“Like you, I continue to be disturbed what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.” And he goes on to say, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”



Well, given a do-over, the right thing would have been to pause and reflect a bit more carefully on the very first statement on the incident. The CEO’s response was tone deaf and became a national story of the worst kind for United. (The Chicago PD made things even worse when it said the doctor injured his face when “he fell” onto an armrest.)


And you may remember the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that killed 11 men and coated Gulf Coast beaches with oil in 2010 (and the 2016 movie of the tragedy starring Mark Wahlberg).  Weeks after the catastrophe hit, CEO Tony Hayward insensitively remarked to reporters that “I’d like my life back” and said he hadn’t had a day off for weeks. Tell that to the widows. It was a damaging public-relations black eye, perhaps brought on by fatigue and off-the-cuff comments.


Let’s hope your business or organization never has to enter the crisis communication vortex. It is fraught with PR peril. If you find yourself in the middle of an unfortunate event, here are some tips to avoid making things worse.


1. Plan for a crisis. Make a plan you never want to use. Make it when you can devote time and careful consideration – not when crisis hits.

2. Provide a timely response. Online news media, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media will have the story out right away. Time is of the essence to shape public opinion. Silence in a crisis suggests you have something to hide or you’ve done something wrong.

3. Never make one statement to the public and another to employees. All should hear the same consistent message. Remember, an employee may post your statement on social media for all to see.

4. Identify a spokesperson. Is it you? Don’t wing it. Read prepared statements ahead of time with your inner cynic engaged. Have several colleagues review it and ask, what could go wrong with this? Some “holding statements” could be prepared ahead of time, such as “Our emergency team has responded, and we will be supplying additional information when it is available and posting it on our website.”

5. Make a list of the 10 worst things that could happen. Involve all employees. It’ll cost a bit to make a plan – and a whole lot more if crisis hits and you have no plan. Different groups should brainstorm: executive team, employees in all departments. The overall plan should include your outline for a communication strategy.

6. Set policy for what you can say, who says it, how you get the messages out, who gets the messages. As part of their plan, many companies set up a calling tree, with no more than two calls assigned to each person.

7. Identify stakeholders to whom you will communicate. Internal audience, external audience of customers, vendors, community leaders and media representatives. Create a list of names, emails and phone numbers.


8. Plan for situations when you need additional support if the phones, email and social media blow up. You need to join the discussion and stay on message. Don’t ignore the frenzy and think it will go away.


9. If you are not in a position to answer questions from the media, just say so. Tell reporters that when you have information you can share, you will. Keep news releases short and to the point. As media reports emerge, monitor them closely. If media gets it wrong, whether the reporters talked to you or not, call to demand a correction.


10. Do a post mortem when the dust settles. What could you have done better? Revise your crisis communication plan as necessary.