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

Crisis Reaffirms that “No Comment” Is Never the Best Response

When is it appropriate to go off script? Crisis communication has become a well-developed specialty. It brings with it well-developed scripts for what to say under various reputation-threatening circumstances, particularly accidents or tragedies where a company has to say something before knowing all of the facts—or sometimes any of them.

During a crisis, companies have to respond because “no comment” is interpreted as a confirmation of the question. That is, in the current incident where a Lufthansa subsidiary crashed into a mountain, perhaps on purpose, killing 150 people and the reporter asks, “Did you know the pilot was suicidal?” The “no comment” response appears to say, “We sure did.”

When there are fatalities, pre-written comments should always include that the company is thinking of the individuals and families. If it’s a secular environment, the company “has them in our hearts” and if there’s any possible religious component, “they’re in our prayers.” Generally, the company is “cooperating with all authorities,” and “is doing everything to help and care for the families,” and possibly “is reaching out to local communities.” All of these messages are a “must” and, if at all possible, they should be delivered by a spokesperson as opposed to a written statement. The companies we have worked with understand the importance of expressing these sentiments. Additionally, the company can’t say anything specific immediately following a crisis—because it is often too soon to know.

As I write this, I’m at an American Bar Association conference for their environmental section. I think I’m the only non-lawyer, and I’m on a panel with several of the country’s most distinguished practitioners. One of my lessons is this: if you haven’t rehearsed it, don’t say it. Examples include BP’s CEO Tony Hayward, who famously said he was looking forward to cleaning up the spill because “I’d like my life back,” ignoring the 13 people who actually lost their lives.

This is why it’s so unusual that the comments from Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr are so powerful. When he learned that the plane’s co-pilot locked the captain out of the cockpit and crashed the plane on purpose, his response was “We at Lufthansa are speechless.” This had all the earmarks of a spontaneous expostulation, but I think it was very effective.

It was genuine, timely and a sentiment that everyone listening could identify with—and we’re suddenly all on Lufthansa’s side.

However, we don’t want CEOs to think they’re off the hook from consultation and rehearsal. If someone is going to make a “spontaneous” comment, it should achieve the goals above: it must be virtually immediate and absolutely genuine. The reaction of the overwhelming number of readers or listeners needs to be, “They’re talking to me.”

As for the explanation of the crash and the motivation which could have caused it, we are also speechless.

By Merrie Spaeth, Spaeth Communications—originally posted on the Spaeth Blog; reprinted with permission 

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