3 crisis communications lessons from Southwest’s intrepid pilot

Capt. Tammie Jo Shults kept her calm when she lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing. Here’s what PR pros can learn from her cool response.

Communicators can learn a thing or two from airline pilots.

In addition to saving the lives of 148 Southwest Airlines passengers, Capt. Tammie Jo Shults—the former U.S. Navy fighter pilot who safely landed a Boeing 737 in Philadelphia after a mid-air explosion took out one of its engines—also gave a master class in crisis communications at 190 mph.

Here are three things PR pros can learn from this real-life Wonder Woman:

1. Be prepared.

No doubt Capt. Shults has nerves of steel, but she also had a plan.

Pilots create, practice and review emergency procedures so that when something does go wrong, muscle memory kicks in. It’s crucial for communicators to do the same—even those used to rapidly responding every day. Having a clear protocol in place when a crisis hits saves valuable time and allows practitioners to focus on the issue at hand.

A good plan will identify a crisis team for making decisions and responding in an emergency situation. The crisis team may comprise the organization’s executive leadership, communicators, human resources, legal and other relevant representatives. Together they should work to identify the nature and scope of the crisis, decide on an appropriate response, delegate responsibilities and communicate information and decisions to the relevant audiences, internally and externally.

2. Be calm, clear and honest.

Within minutes of the explosion on Capt. Shults’ airplane, she gathered all the facts about the situation and communicated them calmly, clearly and honestly to air traffic controllers and terrified passengers. Unless legal or security considerations prevent it, tell it fast and tell the truth should be your mantra in a crisis.

To decide how to position your client’s response in a crisis, step out of your role internally and try to view the situation from the audience’s perspective. Consider the wide range of consequences—public safety, legal, financial, public relations, etc.—the incident may have on stakeholders. In developing messaging it’s always best to admit mistakes up front and begin doing whatever possible to reestablish credibility and confidence with internal and external audiences. After public safety, the first and foremost goal is protecting your client’s integrity and reputation. Never try to lie, deny or hide your involvement. Ever.

Your plan should identify the appropriate spokespeople for making official statements and answering media questions throughout the crisis. Make sure your spokespeople are media trained ahead of time and familiar with the key messages and facts about the crisis. Spend some time rehearsing prepared statements and answers to “tough” questions that they may get from reporters so that, like Capt. Shults’, your spokespeople can keep their cool when it counts.

3. Be timely and targeted.

Capt. Shults’ nimble communication with air traffic control enabled first responders to meet the plane when it landed and attend to the injured without delay. Her quick, calm instructions to passengers for how to brace for a crash landing likely prevented more serious injuries. In a crisis, communicating immediately with targeted messages gives communicators greatest opportunity to assert some control over events.

Initial statements during a crisis should include the who, what, when and where of the situation and confirmed facts from reliable sources. Don’t overreach and don’t speculate. If you do nothing more than show concern for the situation in our first public interaction, you are already on the right track.

Use all appropriate communication channels available to reach each audience segment affected by the crisis. You can help maintain—or begin to reestablish—the good will of your audience by taking the initiative to share information with them as soon as new facts become available and are safe to pass on.

You may not be able to prevent a crisis from occurring, but, if handled properly, you can minimize the damage it causes. Capt. Shults’ quick action, calm demeanor and thorough preparation undoubtedly saved lives on Southwest Airlines Flight 1380. If PR practitioners take a page from her flight plan, they can better protect their clients when a crisis threatens their security, integrity or reputation.

Kellie Murphy (@kelliemurfski) is Senior Vice President at Scott Circle Communications (@scottcircle), a Washington, D.C. based public relations firm working with mission-driven clients.

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