After Tuesday morning's Germanwings plane crash in the French Alps, parent company Lufthansa immediately entered crisis communications mode. Any catastrophe that claims lives requires delicate and sensitive communications, but as details about the crash emerged the situation became a truly worst-case scenario.
Brice Robin, the chief Marseille prosecutor handling the investigation of the crash, said Thursday that the cockpit voice recorder indicated that the co-pilot deliberately locked the captain out of the cockpit and intentionally steered the plane into its fatal descent, killing all 144 passengers and five other crew members on board, according to The New York Times. The co-pilot, identified as Andreas Lubitz, wanted "to destroy the aircraft," Robin said.
For communicators at any company that is responsible for the safety of its customers, imagining worst-case scenarios such as the Germanwings crash is part of the job. Even the most sound crisis communications plans can't account for all factors, though. It's unlikely that Lufthansa was prepared for the French prosecutor to make his pronouncements to the media so quickly.
"It is an unusual situation when a third party, in this case a French prosecutor, divulges integral information this early in an investigation," Peter LaMotte, Levick's senior vice president-chair, digital practice, told PR News. "Also the fact that the prosecutor made this public statement before either investigative officials or Germanwings and its parent Lufthansa had provided their statements. In today’s world of instant news, organizations and companies should be prepared at a moment's notice to react to new developments. The fact that it took them some time to address the statement shows that not everyone was on the same page as to how the public will be informed. One hopes it did not jeopardize the investigation."
This type of situation is the greatest challenge for all crisis managers. Expecting the unexpected is fine as a catchphrase, but how do you truly prepare for the impossible-to-foresee developments in the aftermath of a catastrophic, tragic event?
Perhaps the answer, if there is one, is for communicators to remember that they are more than just their job titles. “Communicators are also devastated when the unthinkable happens, when lives are lost in an airline disaster," said Mary Grady, managing director, media and public relations, for Los Angeles World Airports. "In the rush to provide answers and information, it’s OK to be human, to have feelings. People’s trust in the message is greater if it is delivered with care and empathy.”
Follow Brian Greene on Twitter: @bw_greene
Follow Steve Goldstein on Twitter: @SGoldsteinAI