This month, two major news stories have required the use of crisis communications. The first was about Levi Pettit’s and Parker Rice’s (Oklahoma State Sigma Alpha Epsilon members) racist chant that was caught on camera and spread rampantly on social media. The second and more recent story was about the Germanwings aircraft that crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 passengers.
Pettit’s and Rice’s need for crisis communications was obvious from the moment the video was posted. But the extent of Germanwings airline’s need for crisis communications was not as immediately obvious. Of course the airline had a problem on its hands because the plane crashed and killed all of the passengers, but two days later the story got worse. Authorities are now saying the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, intentionally flew the passengers to their horrible deaths. Both of these incidents required immediate response from the responsible parties.
Pettit & Rice
When the video of the racist chant began to spread, the President of OU, David Boren, quickly suspended the entire fraternity and then kicked it completely off campus. Pettit and Rice did nothing, which made things worse.
A few days later, Pettit’s parents issued an apology. Unfortunately, the Pettit family implemented the crisis communications plan all wrong. Everyone wanted a sincere apology and explanation from Pettit, not mommy and daddy. A couple of hours later, Rice released a written apology through his father. But there was no face behind the apology, no voice with real sincerity. The apology was almost too eloquent to be written by Rice. Like University of North Texas professor Samra Buskins said in an interview with the Dallas Observer, “It would come across as a lot more sincere and believable if they went on camera, even if they did a YouTube video, and did it themselves.” The fraternity’s executive director announced the implementation of a diversity training program and diversity committee and also publicly apologized.
On March 25, more than two weeks after the release of the video, Pettit publicly apologized in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma:
I pray that Pettit has learned some valuable lessons. Mainly that racism has absolutely no place in our world.
All parties involved in this situation (the OU president, the fraternity executive director and the students) implemented crisis communications. The president and executive director may have been somewhat successful, but the students are still in the hole they dug themselves into. Only actions, not words, will improve their situations and chances of ever getting jobs in the professional world.
Although the story is still unfolding, one thing is for sure: the plane crash was not an accident. The airline’s parent company, Lufthansa, began its crisis communications right after the crash on March 24. The “black box” or voice recorder in the plane was recovered and investigators found that there was nothing but steady breathing from the co-pilot in the cockpit and later screaming in the background from the passengers, pilot and flight attendants. The investigators made the announcement early on that the crash was intentional, most likely before the company was ready to speak publicly. But how could a company really prepare for something so horrible?
Those who knew Lubitz never thought he was suicidal or never had any obvious problems, physically or psychologically. Lubitz does have an unexplained gap in his flight training though. Today, more evidence of a mental illness came to light. Investigators found torn-up doctors notes stating Lubitz was too ill to work, including one dated the day of the crash, at his home. Apparently he had been evaluated by doctors twice in the months before the crash, but not treated for anything.
The company is probably going to see a drop in sales and a huge hit to its reputation. Germanwings must effectively communicate all new information about the crash and the co-pilot to its publics and families of victims, as well as implement programs that will make passengers feel safer, like tougher guidelines and psychological tests for pilots and co-pilots. The airline will not bounce back over night, but may not be completely doomed if its PR professionals handle the situation correctly.