The Wall Street Journal spoke to crisis experts at Golin and Weber Shandwick, both of whom gave Lufthansa high marks for their response to the recent Germanwings crash:
Scott Farrell, president of global corporate communications, Golin: “There may be no industry better prepared to deal with a disastrous event than the airline industry. When the worst happens, airlines are typically peerless in activating a carefully choreographed and tightly scripted series of press conferences, statements and news releases conveying the company’s official commentary on the event.
“Deutsche Lufthansa AG CEO Carsten Spohr did the textbook response one better with the remarkable way that he exuded emotion and empathy for the victims of the crash, their families and friends. ‘This makes us speechless,’ Mr. Spohr said in the opening minutes of his first appearance before the media. ‘We are shocked,’ he continued, describing the crash as ‘our worst nightmare.’ He’s since repeated many of the same sentiments, and has offered apologies, most recently at a visit to the crash site.
“Still, just three days after Mr. Spohr told reporters that the co-pilot was ‘100 percent fit to fly without caveats,’ Lufthansa disclosed the co-pilot’s previous mental health issues. This development may cast Lufthansa, at best, as not having command of important information and at worst, of not disclosing information until it became impossible to keep it secret.
“Mr. Spohr deserves credit for his timely appearance before the media, and his genuine and heartfelt comments. However, in the need to be timely he became victim to a phenomenon we call ‘the fog of crisis’–when early information is later found to be inaccurate or wrong, or when the facts you need to share a compelling story with media and other stakeholders simply aren’t yet available. Companies in the early hours of a crisis are best off telling media and others only what they know, and that they’re in the process of gathering facts and information rather than speculating. In a crisis, credibility is king and this is the best way to preserve that valuable asset.”
Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist, Weber Shandwick: “Lufthansa’s response to the tragedy has in many ways been exemplary, especially on social media. It deftly employed the right online tools: live-streaming, Twitter, videos, web updates and even the graying of its logo. In a digitally savvy way, Lufthansa efficiently reached key stakeholders including customers, employees, media and, of course, victims’ relatives.
“Using the right tools, however, is not enough. One must also communicate effectively. Lufthansa has not leveraged the power of visual influence to convey the empathy that is so necessary in a tragedy of such epic proportions.
“Although CEO Spohr personally thanked recovery workers and caregivers, photos show him apart from them. Empathy is about human connection, and visual evidence must demonstrate as much. Yet photos inevitably show the CEO alone, whether solitarily sitting at a conference table or making a solo video address. No matter how warm the verbal message, the impression left is of a CEO distant from those grieving.
“We need only compare the images of AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes when faced with a tragic crash last December. They inevitably show him in motion with others. He is talking to a group, listening or merely biting his lip in a crowd. The impression is clear. He is a people person.
“Mr. Spohr must demonstrate that he empathizes deeply. More caring words wouldn’t hurt him or the airline’s reputation–especially in lieu of constantly praising Lufthansa’s training. Far better are images of him or other executives with employees or rescue workers showing concern. Visually showing executives comforting others would go a long way to establish Lufthansa’s sincerity as it embraces those grieving.”