On Crisis Communication

by John Martin McDonald, Founder of Caeli Communications, LLC.


They didn’t teach me how to plan mass funerals in PR school.

I was standing in the damp, wet grass of a Long Island, New York cemetery that dreary December day, awaiting the start of a funeral for a dozen people who had died on TWA Flight 800. It was a Boeing 747 that had exploded in the summer sky, killing all 230 passengers.

These were the missing. The bodies yet recovered. The caskets only containing photographs, teddy bears, and memories.

As spokesman for the airline, I was there to ensure the media did not harass the families during this most solemn memorial ceremony. A ceremony we’d arranged for the families who waited. Those hoping for some small shred of their loved one to surface. To be recovered from the 117 feet of water in the cold Long Island Sound where the crash had occurred.

I’d been through a lot in the preceding six months. Emotions I’d never experienced. Pressures never endured, as the world caved in all around us.

They hadn’t warned me about this in school.

Crises come into our reality in many forms. They can be as awful and spectacular as the fiery explosion of a jumbo jet, or as nefarious and stealthy as a data breech of millions of customers’ personal financial records.

While I wasn’t taught how to plan mass funerals in college, I was given the tools I needed to handle the job. The ability to discern truth from fiction. Knowing how to do ‘the right thing’ and not compound the problems. How to work with others and ask for help when it is required.

Above all, to know how this will all play out in the larger picture, and to ensure that in the end, I can sleep at night knowing we’d done our best.

Crisis management isn’t rocket science:

  • Plan ahead. You will face a crisis, the only question is when and how severe.
  • Drill your crisis plan. This helps you find the weak spots. If each drill isn’t a failure in some respect, you aren’t drilling hard enough.
  • Be flexible. It is said that every battle plan fails at the first encounter with the enemy. Knowing you have a plan, and how it works, enables you to reshuffle the cards at every hand and to play your best at each encounter.
  • Learn from your mistakes. Every crisis response has a failure in some respect. Always have an open mind and be brutally honest about the shortcomings. It is okay to fail. It is not okay to fail to learn.

If you are faced with a crisis, remember that you are human too. Ask for help. Sometimes all you’ll want to do is help others.

I pray you’ll never have to face a crisis. But if you do, remember that you had an opportunity to prepare.

Take that opportunity today.


03c87d9.jpgAbout the Author: John Martin McDonald recently retired from American Airlines as VP of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs. He spent 35 years in PR, with gigs at General Motors, United Airlines, TWA, USAirways and Fleishman-Hillard International Communications. He began his career as a radio reporter in Ionia, MI. He is an inductee in the Central Michigan University Journalism School Hall of Fame. In 2016, he founded Caeli Communications, a crisis management and communications consultancy. John lives in Mesa, AZ and Frankfort, MI with his wife Pamela. 


Editor’s Note: If you are a Wayne State PRSSA member and are interested in learning more about crisis communication, we have an event coming up in March 2017 with our very own Dean Seeger, who is 16406843_10154408692633182_169573244062153833_n.jpgan expert on this subject. This is an awesome, free opportunity to learn more on this often tricky subject.

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