PR Lessons from a Tragedy

By: Cole Buergi, VP of Business Development, Leonard & Finco Public Relations

My deepest sympathies go out to family and friends of the passengers and crew of Germanwings flight 9525. It’s tragic that the co-pilot, reportedly suffering from depression, locked the pilot out of the cockpit and deliberately crashed the airliner in the French Alps killing all 150 on board.

Crisis situations such as this bring to the forefront the importance of having a well thought out crisis communications plan prepared in the event of a tragedy, whether purposely done or caused by accident.

Clearly, Germanwings and its parent company Lufthansa, did not have a plan in place, chose to ignore it or simply got bad advice judging by Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr’s comments a day after the crash. He reportedly said the co-pilot passed all medical and aviation test and was 100 percent able to fly without any reservations. He added that, “Nothing was noticed that wasn’t proper,” referring to the co-pilot’s status. Just days later, Spohr was backtracking, acknowledging that the airline was aware the co-pilot had suffered from depression in the past.

In a crisis situation, it’s important to respond in a timely fashion. Equally important is the response be well thought out and accurate. In this case, Spohr should have simply stated that Lufthansa was working with the investigation team to understand what happened and that Lufthansa is fully cooperating with law enforcement during the investigation; reviewing its own files to get a clear picture of the pilot and co-pilot’s history. Remember, at the point Spohr provided his comments, no one knew precisely what happened. 

To say anything more creates the opportunity for a situation like this. By saying one thing and then being proven wrong creates doubt that Lufthansa may lack the process and procedures to adequately assess who is mentally capable to fly for their airline. Not only does it make Spohr seem like he doesn’t know what he’s doing, it also casts a dark shadow over safety on Lufthansa and Germanwings. 
What do you think the airline should have said – or not said?  What other examples do you have of crisis management gone wrong or, more importantly, done right?