Don’t Let Your Crisis Response Become The Story

By Doug Weller

Empathy, empathy, empathy – let’s toss in sincerity. These qualities are crucial when it comes to your crisis United Airlines Memeresponse, especially when the media locks onto it.

An inappropriate initial crisis response can exacerbate the situation to the point of meltdown. Reputation damage can be significant and costly.

United Airlines Passenger Dragging Incident

United Airlines’ poor crisis response after a passenger was dragged off a flight, is the perfect example.

The passenger, Dr Dao, was already seated on the plane and refused the airline’s request to disembark the overbooked flight to make way for staff.

When Dr Dao wouldn’t comply, law enforcement forcibly removed him, badly wounding him in the process.

Witnesses filmed the drama, posted it on social media and away it went – viral on steroids.

Dr Dao’s lawyers said he suffered multiple injuries including a broken nose, concussion and the loss of two teeth as he was pulled from his seat and dragged through the aircraft.

Not surprisingly, the public was outraged and let United Airlines know.

The footage of an injured Dr Dao being pulled from his seat and then dragged through the plane sparked the crisis.

But as horrible as the incident and footage was, even more damage was done by United’s poor handling of the situation.

On April 10, 2017, United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, issued the following statement:


“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” – Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines


The CEO’s initial response didn’t reflect the seriousness of the incident, nor the public’s outrage.

Mr Munoz mentioned how upset United was but he didn’t initially acknowledge the distress caused to Dr Dao and other passengers.

Empathy, crucial at this stage of the drama, was limited to say the least.

Worse still, he used jargon when apologising for having to “re-accommodate” passengers.

“Re-accommodate”? Dr Dao was pulled from his seat screaming, injured in the process and dragged up the aisle.

The CEO’s inappropriate choice of sterile corporate language saw United Airlines mocked on social media and prime time talk shows. #reaccommodated trended on Twitter and memes lit up the internet.

United reaccommodate tweet

United DR meme


Along with the CEO’s poorly worded initial public response, Mr Munoz also called Dr Dao “belligerent and disruptive” in an internal email to employees:

Disruptive and beligerent

That statement rapidly intensified the public backlash with calls for the CEO to resign and passengers to boycott United.

One day later the CEO delivered his second and much more empathetic crisis response:

April 11, 2017
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 by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.
I promise you we will do better.

The second statement was sympathetic, took responsibility and outlined the airline’s commitment to ensuring such an incident would never happened again.

In the early stages of a crisis, compassion and empathy must take centre stage. If they don’t, any future statements, comments or actions will be lost as an angry public focusses on what it sees as an uncaring response.

Mr Munoz issued several public apologies following the incident. But it was easy for the public to interpret these as insincere damage control aimed at stopping the PR nightmare.

In his first interview about the incident on Good Morning America, Mr Munoz said that he felt shame and that the first thing he should do is apologise.

The reporter asked him why he didn’t apologise initially and why he’d also called Dr Dao belligerent and disruptive in internal staff correspondence. He said his first reaction was to get the facts.

Of course the CEO needed time to gather information.

He should have quickly admitted it was a terrible situation, shown empathy and announced that a full investigation had been launched to get the facts.

Calling the passenger “disruptive” and “belligerent” before fully understanding what happened was a huge mistake.

It implied that the passenger’s behaviour caused his dramatic removal from the aircraft, before any investigation had been completed and facts established.

During the interview Mr Munoz admitted that his initial crisis response fell short. He said he learned that to express an apology is an important part of the conversation. But it was too late.

For years United Airlines has been inviting customers to come fly the friendly skies. Video of a 69 year old doctor being dragged off a flight isn’t very friendly.

Get the facts quickly

This isn’t the first badly managed crisis and it won’t be the last.

Dreamworld theme park is another example of a poorly managed crisis response.

When customers tragically died after a ride malfunctioned, Dreamworld announced it would quickly reopen, failed to directly communicate with all victim’s families and held its AGM.

It all looked insensitive and Dreamworld felt the public’s wrath.

During a crisis, leaders need to have appropriate comments sorted very quickly.

It’s absolutely essential that the facts are gathered quickly when a crisis hits. But be cautious making any public comments until all the facts have been gathered and the picture is totally clear.

In the early stages you can quickly express empathy and you should treat everyone involved in the incident fairly and compassionately.

United Airlines Crisis Response – An Epic Mistake

When all of the facts were considered in United’s passenger dragging crisis, it was clear that the airline’s overbooking procedures had failed.

Weeks after the crisis, United’s CEO testified at a congressional hearing that the incident was “a mistake of epic proportions”.

But United’s crisis response immediately following the incident was also a mistake of epic proportions.

Had United initially been more empathetic, the incident, not the crisis response would have been the story.

Information Only

Any information presented on our website is of a general nature only and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.

Further Assistance

If you want to know more about engaging with the media, contact Corporate Media Services for more information about our media training programs and services. Email your enquiry now to or call 1300 737 913


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Germanwings crash site

Online Crisis Communications – Germanwings

Online Crisis Communications – Germanwings

Germanwings crash site

By Corporate Media Services

The Germanwings aviation tragedy demonstrates how fast news travels via traditional and social media during a crisis.

In the midst of the disaster, Germanwings and its parent company Lufthansa had to respond to the crisis while continuing to operate their businesses.

During a crisis, speculation, opinions, conspiracy theories, rumours and facts will be tossed around.

Company websites and company social media accounts are some of the first places the media and the public turn to for the latest news and updates on a crisis.

It’s really important that a crisis communications strategy exists and that websites and social media sites are crisis ready.

The media will be desperate for information. Journalists want and need the latest facts and updated content.

As the Germanwings coverage evolved, stories transitioned from the plane crash, to the recovery effort, finding the black boxes and the allegation that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, deliberately downed the aircraft.

News organisations sourced information not only from Germanwings but also from a range of people such as the co-pilot’s friends, past partners, ex flight instructors, neighbours and acquaintances.

As the story  changes  it’s important that your website and social media accounts are updated with fresh messages.

In the digital world there isn’t time to develop an online strategy from scratch when a crisis hits. News now travels instantly and is 24/7.

Organisations must have a prepared online crisis communications plan which is ready to go.

During a crisis an up-to-date, informative digital presence is critical.

Germanwings provided regular updates which addressed speculation, empathised with family members and expressed the organisation’s shock as information unfolded.

For example, when Germanwings confirmed that the co-pilot had deliberately killed himself and everyone else on board, it  published the following update.


Germanwings online update

Source: Germanwings

The company message clearly portrays their astonishment, disbelief and devastation.

Every organisation is different so you need to deal with a crisis in the most appropriate manner for your business.

However, even small organisations are not immune to crises and should ensure their websites and social media accounts are ready to go.

These sites must also be able to handle a dramatic increase in digital traffic. Germanwings’ website went down when news broke of the incident and remained unavailable for some time. It was unfortunate as they were referring audiences to their website for updates via social media.


Germanwings website down

Source: ITV News


During a crisis it’s vital that the affected business  be the primary source of information, particularly for the media.

When a crisis hits your business you need to be in control, credible and offer timely, accurate information.

This not only builds trust with your wider audience but also importantly builds journalist’s trust in you.

Being a reliable online source of information for news media makes the journalist’s job easier. It also ensures your messages are at the forefront of what’s reported.

Messages must include latest updates and express empathy and concern.

High profile organisations and those facing a higher risk of crises, such as airlines, often have a ‘dark site’.

Dark sites are pre built company websites that are ready to activate when a crisis happens.

Dark sites:

  • are solemn
  • provide detailed information of the crisis
  • give regular updates
  • express concern
  • give instructions to those affected e.g. family members
  • are typically ad free
  • provide contacts for the media

Both Germanwings and their parent company, Lufthansa, altered their logos to black and white to reflect the solemn nature of the event.

Blackened Logos

Image Source: PR Week


The Germanwings homepage also changed to reflect the sombre mood of the incident.


Germanwings homepage

Source: Germanwings


Dark sites generally then direct you to click through to the normal operating page.

They ultimately allow organisations to appropriately deal with the crisis and manage usual business simultaneously.

There are many ways for an organisation to deal with a crisis. Just ensure that you’re prepared and know what you will do if a crisis hits.


  • Provide regular accurate updates, appropriate information plus messages of empathy
  • The message can evolve as the situation changes
  • Maintain your positive image
  • The organisation should be the primary source of information during a crisis

Further reading

We Are Speechless: Germanwings’ Handling of Media Inquiries Raises Concerns about When It’s Appropriate to “Wing It”

Crisis of the Week: Lufthansa’s Response to Germanwings Crash

PR experts applaud Lufthansa’s crisis communications approach to Germanwings disaster

 Lufthansa, Germanwings darken logos on social media in mourning after crash

Information Only

Any information presented on our website is of a general nature only and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.

Further Assistance

If you want to know more about engaging with the media, contact Corporate Media Services for more information about our media training programs and services. Make an email enquiry now… or call 1300 737 913



Crisis Media Communications Case Study – Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

Crisis Media Communications Case Study – Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370

By Corporate Media Services

Case Study Background

The terrible tragedy of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 will no doubt be discussed in crisis communications case studies for many years to come.

It’s hard to imagine a crisis with so many tragic elements, 227 passengers and 12 crew presumed dead, hundreds of devastated family members and friends desperate for news and no definitive answer weeks after the event.

This tragedy reminds us of the basic requirements for dealing with a crisis whilst simultaneously handling frenzied media attention.

In our post September 11 world, the global media machine went into overdrive when news of the incident hit but a lack of solid information in the initial phases led to media speculation, mixed messages, conspiracy theories, and confusion.

Crisis Media Communications Issues

This catastrophe highlighted many aspects of crisis media communications.

The Malaysian authorities and airline representatives were widely scrutinised and critiqued for how they publicly handled the situation.

Families of missing passengers and crew were desperate for answers about their loved ones. Journalists were clamouring for updates, and the worldwide audience wanted to know what happened.

What are the most serious aspects of this incident from a crisis media communications perspective?

  • The potential of a terrorist attack – highly sensitive information was limited or withheld
  • Cultural conflicts – between Malaysia and China (the majority of passengers were Chinese nationals)
  • Contradictory details of the investigation – were released
  • Multiple unsubstantiated theories of what happened – including pilot suicide, hijacking, aircraft malfunction, a bombing, and even the world’s first cyber terrorist attack.

As the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Guidelines – Crisis Communications and Social Media Document suggests,’ Companies must be prepared to engage pro-actively with the news media and with other audiences to ensure that they are seen to respond swiftly and appropriately, and that they intend to do “the right thing”.

The media is ferocious at the time of a crisis

In the early stages of most crises, individuals and organisations have little information about what is occurring.

A lack of detailed and verifiable information, combined with company representatives desperately trying to assess and confirm the situation, often prevents spokespeople from addressing the media at the beginning of a crisis. They are furiously busy getting their head around what has happened and how to handle it rather than working out how to talk to the media about the incident.

When the media wants information, it is crucial it receives some comment even if the information is restricted.

As seen in the Malaysia Airlines incident, extensive media resources were used to cover the event. Especially in the early stages of a crisis, that coverage was around the clock and unrelenting.

It is important that organisations understand the ferocious appetite the media has for news as a crisis unfolds. The media wants constant information in the early stages of a crisis when information is limited.

What if there is nothing new to say?

Some believe there is no point updating media when there is nothing new to say. However, most media outlets want ‘updates’ and spokesperson commentary even if there is nothing new to add. This is particularly the case in a world of live TV and web coverage that is 24/7.

During the early stages of this highly sensitive incident Malaysia Airlines spokespeople supplied information regularly; however some of their information was later contradicted. This led to confusion, disappointment and anger, particularly from the Chinese relatives of passengers.

The lessons to be learned from this incident are:

  • Communicate with the media as early as possible, but make sure the information is correct before making any comment
  • When information is limited, supply only verified material, keeping in mind any legal requirements
  • ‘Update’ the media even if new information is limited, or comment that there is nothing new to add. For example, suggest that you will update the media each day at say 10am and 2pm whether or not there is any new information to share during the first stages of the crisis
  • Ensure communication lines are clear and open allowing a professional relationship to develop between spokespeople and the media.

Further Information

International Air Transport Association (IATA) Guidelines – Crisis Communications & Social Media

Crisis Media Communications Training – Corporate Media Services

Information Only

Any information presented on our website is of a general nature only and is not intended as a substitute for professional advice.

Further Assistance

If you’re currently dealing with an organisational crisis involving the media, or could be in the future, contact Corporate Media Services for more information or training about crisis media communications.

Make an email enquiry now… or call 1300 737 913