Crisis communications should be an essential part of any organisation’s planning. There are two essential types of crises.

Foreseeable crises where you may be able to scenario plan ahead for ‘what if’s’ or ‘when if’s’. 

Secondly, there are crises which are sudden and unpredictable. Ones that you just can’t possibly foresee.

In the case of United Airlines, it may be the later, but there are some lessons I believe that are applicable for churches. I’m not going to go into who did what wrong and who’s to blame for this particular crisis. But it does raise some very important issues. 

Firstly, we have to all acknowledge that where there are people involved mistakes will happen, there will be bad or poor judgement or nefarious intent. This will always have the potential to be blow-up and go public. Churches are like any other organisation, we are people based and bad things can happen or be done by them.

Today I want to focus on four lessons:

1. Bad news travels globally fast

We used to live in a world where the news emerged over hours and days. Today any news can trend and be seen globally in a matter of minutes. 

Social media has the potential to amplify any crisis exponentially. 

Everyone’s an opinion piece reporter. Nearly everyone has a phone or dash cam with high definition sound and vision. Everything that is done can be uploaded online very quickly. If something happens you should assume someone will have pulled out their phone and recorded it!

You can no longer ‘shape’ public opinion with your PR release. The raw opinionated news is already out there. 

2. Put people first

In any crisis team there will be a lawyer telling a leader not to admit anything. They see the world strictly through the lens of law (and pending lawsuits!). On the other side of the table is a communications person who would say that communicating empathy, sympathy and even saying sorry quickly will have a possible effect of potentially minimise or defuse a potential crisis. 

Saying sorry costs nothing. Taking responsibility is the right thing to do. (Yes lawyers, it really does in the long run). A simple apology (if you mean it) can have a profound impact. It may reduce anger and the feeling of not being heard.

In the United Airlines crisis, by not saying taking full responsibility and magnified by the leadership using terrible language in a media statement originally they have sent the communication that they are out of touch with an issue that is already in plain sight. 

Bottom line is that there are always people who may have been hurt, physically or emotionally in a crisis situation. It’s not a game to be won. But a situation to work through. As tough as it will be. Always put the person/people first. 

3. Don’t spin

Some people will say this is rich from someone like me with experience in communications. But any good communications person will tell you, you can’t spin bad news like this.  

In the case of the United Airlines, the CEO sent an internal email to reassure staff that was leaked very quickly to news organisations. In the minds of the internal team there, they clearly thought they could communicate different messages to different audiences. 

You can’t segment the message. Everyone is listening in the moment of crisis. You have to assume that what you type or say is public information. 

Just because an issue like seat overbooking is standard operational practice. Doesn’t make it right in the court of public opinion. It’s tolerated, but given the chance to reject it has clearly been voted down. You can’t spin out of that.

4. Nuance is buried

Here’s the big one. It wasn’t United airline staff that dragged the poor Doctor off the plane. According to the news it was federal authorities. In the operational moment, United management had no control over how the procedure was badly handled. Sure they could have managed what they did better. But ultimately they were the heavy hands doing the lifting.

But that means nothing. It’s the headline that matters. 

In your case, it may be a volunteer or someone who isn’t ‘on staff’. The nuance will get lost on the media. 

Even if you aren’t directly responsible. Take responsibility. Own the issue and bring it to a resolution the way you want it to be managed or resolved. 

Further reading

7 Practical Public Relations Tips For Churches  

Listen to my interview with Justin Dean about Crisis Communications (Includes a brilliant plan template)

United Airlines and the Firestorm of Social Media

Your turn

What would you do? How would you handle this situation differently? Do you have any plans prepared? Comment below.