Let’s talk about crises.
From time to time in the PR world, things are going to go wrong. Sometimes it will be a minor hiccup, sometimes more. Occasionally it will be a disaster that draws the attention of the entire nation. That last one is what I want to talk about today.
In 2014, the Virgin Airlines spacecraft SpaceShipTwo was torn apart during a test flight and crashed to the ground in California. The pilot survived with serious injuries, but the co-pilot did not. An investigation eventually found that the feathered tail-bloom system, which increased drag, was deployed earlier than expected while the rocket was still accelerating. This caused the rocket to tear itself apart.
Although the cause was human error, it was determined that the design of the aircraft and the training of the pilots included no safety measures for human-caused error, instead opting to focus on errors in responding to catastrophic failures. For more details regarding the specifics of the accident, read this article. There is also this video by ABC.
Now it seems like this situation is set up to be the perfect PR disaster storm. It’s an industry that many are unsure about the safety of, it seems like there was neglect for industry safety standards and regulations, and people died as a result of it. However, Virgin found Richard Branson managed to stop the impending doom of his space program with some brilliant crisis control and I think there is a valuable lesson to be learned in his response over the hours and days that followed the crash.
Within hours of the crash, Branson had tweeted about the crash, extending apologies and loving words to the families of the victims. He then immediately flew to the scene of the crash and released a blog post about the incident before the mainstream media outlets had picked it up. In the post, he called the pilots brave, had more kind words for the surviving families, and let the world know that the space program would “persevere” through the tragedy.
The lesson to be learned here is in spinning crises. That sounds bad at first, but it doesn’t mean that a bunch of men in a board room are twirling their mustaches and trying to convince the world that the victim is at fault. Instead, it simply means that there are a lot of ways to approach a story, so maybe you should try and convince news outlets to approach it your way.
Look at Branson’s responses. He could have talked about safety regulations; then the world would ask why they didn’t follow them. He could have talked about the rigorous training their pilots went through; then the world would ask why they didn’t think a human could cause an error instead of simply respond to one. Neither of those is very good, but there is a third option. He could talk about the brave pilots who were taken before their time and extend his heart and his good wishes to their families; then the world would ask what they could do to help those in grieving.
By focusing on the human element, Branson was able to keep Virgin’s space program alive. Now, instead of shutting down to avoid more senseless tragedy, they could continue the course in memory of the pilots. By spinning the story to in his favor, Branson was able to prop the victims up while standing next to them. That’s something every PR professional should aim for in a crisis situation.
See you next time.