When a Crisis Hits – What to say and how to say it

By Doug Weller

Crisis communications planning should happen well before an organisational crisis occurs.

Schools, for example, face a myriad of headline grabbing issues on a regular basis.

Headlines about bullying, hazing and drugs are bad enough, but news of school shootings are now all too common.

When I’m reading and watching these news stories, obviously my heart goes out to the victims and others involved – but also, I can’t help but think about what’s going on for the reporters and the school as they deal with the situation, especially when kids have been injured or killed.

During a situation like this, the pressure on news editors to get information from journos on the ground is immense. That means the school is under pressure to make comment whilst dealing with an intense situation.

You can debate the ethics endlessly.

Should journalists be seeking comment from people under such difficult circumstances?

How do you report such a story and what photos and vision do you show?

But any shooting or incident involving injuries or death is a major news story.

It’s the job of a journalist to cover it the best they can.

As I watched the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, I thought of the teachers and students going about their day, only to have it shattered in a split second.

It would be chaos as emergency services arrive and parents rush to the scene, desperate for information. Adding to the bedlam media crews would be everywhere.

During the Florida incident, and similar incidents, the school would have media wanting comment from staff who probably don’t have all the details. On top of that, everyone’s emotions would be running high.

Schools, like any organisations, can be hit by a crisis at any time. I’ve worked with many schools to prepare them to deal with media during crisis situations.

With so many competing demands, how do they respond to media under extreme pressure, quickly and professionally?

In many ways the media can be your best friend during a crisis, at a school or anywhere else.

Traditional and social media can be used to get messages out to parents and other stakeholders very quickly, if you are organised and realistic about what you can achieve during this time.

Confirmation that something has occurred, and that it’s being dealt with is better than silence.

Then as the details become available, updates can be delivered.

The idea of walking up to a media scrum during a crisis can be confronting.

But journalists can be helpful and sympathetic, especially in the early stages of a crisis.

While they prefer to get information from a trusted source, such as the leadership and emergency service personnel, they’ll take whatever information they can get.

Journalists at the scene are under enormous pressure to get something – anything.

Crisis Communications

Would a school Principal or CEO have time to deliver comment to waiting media while having to deal with hundreds of concerned parents, staff, other stakeholders and emergency services personnel? Probably not.

You must avoid situations where the media is desperate for comment but you’re too busy to speak.

That’s why designated media spokespeople should be ready and a crisis communications plan prepared.

If a crisis communications plan exists, it should be realistic and regularly updated. The plan should be clear and concise, not a two-inch-thick book of complex protocols.

Every organisation should prepare a response before a crisis hits.

They should have media spokespeople already trained to deal with the media; and ready to act during high pressure situations.

A spokesperson should be a confident speaker who isn’t going to be busy with other issues.

Key messages for different potential scenarios can be worked out ahead of time. This can take the pressure off the media spokespeople as they prepare to front the media during a crisis.

Would the senior person in your organisation have time to deal with the media if you faced a crisis?

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 how Corporate Media Services’ training programs can help you make the most of your media opportunities and avoid the danger zones, contact Corporate Media Services for more information.



Sun Sentinel


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 response, 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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United Airlines


Dreamworld’s Crisis Communications Nightmare

By Doug Weller


The company logo says it all ‘Dreamworld Happiness’.

It’s all about fun, happiness, and good times’.

Many Australians have wonderful memories of Dreamworld.

Maybe that’s why the tragic accident that happened at Dreamworld shocked the public and impacted families nationwide.

This was a high profile and very newsworthy incident. It ran on local and international media for days.

Media reporting and scrutiny was fast. As you would expect journalists were quickly at the scene wanting details. Live crosses were the order of the day.

During a crisis like this, media interest is relentless.

When a crisis hits, handling it professionally should be the priority – certainly it is not business usual.

Company leaders need to front the media quickly. They need to display leadership and empathy.

Their media responses should demonstrate they are in charge and managing the very difficult situation.

The audience should be able to form a view early that the organisation’s leadership is doing everything possible to deal with the crisis and help those who are suffering.

Having an easy to read and easy to absorb crisis plan, which incorporates crisis media communications, is paramount in preventing reputation damage.

Spokespeople should understand their communications roles during a crisis and what the media will require.

Unfortunately, the Dreamworld crisis response didn’t hit the mark.

The initial response from Dreamworld’s Chief Executive, Craig Davidson, was solid.

But after that both Dreamworld and its owner Ardent Leisure seemed to be reacting rather than proactively managing the media.

In fairness, leaders are people. I’m sure most, if not all of these people, would have been in a state of shock. It must have been terrible for them.

But media and the public can be unforgiving. Ensure you have a tested and firm crisis strategy ready to go.

When a crisis hits, media will be on your doorstep in a flash.

Three things stood out in the immediate aftermath of this crisis:

  1. Planning to reopen within three days of the tragedy
  2. The AGM immediately following the accident
  3. Poor communication with victim’s families

All of these issues led to negative media.

Rushing to reopen Dreamworld

It was announced that a memorial would be held three days after the accident and the park would reopen for business.

Planning to reopen Dreamworld three days after the tragedy, even in a restricted capacity, was a major misstep.

The police investigation was still underway.

The victim’s bodies hadn’t been repatriated to their loved ones.

To reopen a ‘fun’ park, while authorities are just metres away investigating a fatal incident, can only lead to negative media coverage.

Executives said the decision was based on psychological advice that reopening the park would benefit their employee’s recovery.

That may be so. But timing the opening so soon after the incident was a bad move.

Of course employee welfare is an important factor. But employees could have been catered for in a different way such as opening a drop in centre at the complex so staff could chat to colleagues and counsellors.

The company’s leadership needed to consider the victim’s families, emergency investigators and the wider community when deciding when to reopen.

Dreamworld was obviously trying to do the right thing by everyone involved but many saw this move as insensitive and a public backlash followed.

Recovery from this point was always going to be difficult.

On top of this, if the theme park had reopened immediately after the accident, some of the first people through the door would have been journalists.

They would have come ready to interview patrons and staff about the tragedy resulting in more negative media.

The likelihood of distressed staff having to leave on that day would have been high and media would have caught every moment. Media on site would have only added to the distress.

Empathy and respect for the victim’s and their families should be a high priority after an accident like this, as should the incident investigation.

A reopening date was eventually postponed until after the victim’s funerals.

Holding the AGM in wake of crisis

The company’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) was scheduled for two days after the tragedy.

It was unfortunate timing.

The media quickly reported that due to profit increases Ardent CEO, Deborah Thomas, was in line for a large financial bonus up to $843k.

Talk of large financial bonuses when people had lost their lives at Dreamworld resulted in another media and public backlash.

After the negative reaction, CEO, Deborah Thomas thoughtfully donated her cash bonus of $167,500 to the Red Cross for distribution to the victim’s families.

Unfortunately despite this, she and her family were subjected to appalling and disgraceful threats.

Poor communication with victim’s families

The next big misstep in handling this crisis was leadership’s poor communication with victim’s families.

During a crisis, not only do you need to be acting. It’s essential that you are seen to be acting.

Deborah Thomas stated in a media conference that the victim’s families had all been contacted and offered support.

We then watched as a journalist at the same media conference informed the CEO that one family had not been contacted by the company and was very upset.

The journalist told the CEO the relatives were watching the media conference and were angered at the false media comment claiming everyone had been contacted.

The journalist provided the family’s contact details to the CEO live on air!

This was an embarrassing moment for the company.

It would have been easy to use the media to make contact with the victims’ families so assistance could be offered.

Media representatives are more than happy to assist in this way when a crisis happens.

Instead, company executives were waiting for a police liaison officer to make contact with families.

The company could have used the media to deliver a statement such as:

“We are trying to make contact with you but we are having difficulty reaching you…. Please contact us or the police urgently so we can help and support you during this sad and difficult time.”

“We thank Queensland police for its efforts in trying to contact loved ones.”

“If you know family members please ask them to make contact with us or the police.”

But instead they were waiting for families to come to them via the police liaison process.

Waiting looked insensitive to many but that obviously wasn’t the intention.

Deborah Thomas has said if the company was hit with a crisis like this in the future she would handle the situation with the victim’s families differently.

Crisis Media Lessons

When you have an accident your response needs to be swift and compassionate

Don’t try to go back to business as usual in a hurry – wait until it’s clearly appropriate

When you have a critical incident like this stop everything and get the most senior people to the scene immediately

You need to reach out to victims and their families and do it fast

If possible, cancel or restrict public announcements unrelated to the tragedy

Ensure you are speaking to the community in a way which is acceptable and in a way that people can understand

Don’t use internal jargon

Always have a crisis plan you can activate as soon as an incident occurs

Ensure crisis media communications are incorporated into your plan

Be aware of your audience and what it needs to know

Use the media to communicate with your audience

Make requests for information if needed via TV, radio and social media.

Don’t give false information to the media – it will be embarrassing when refuted

Take control – be proactive not reactive

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