How to respond to a crisis without taking advantage of a tragedy

One of the key rules in a crisis such as the Germanwings crash is to not take advantage of a tragedy. Your main job is to offer helpful comments that may provide balance or insight.

The psychological condition of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz drew the mental health community into the media spotlight
The psychological condition of Germanwings co-pilot Andreas Lubitz drew the mental health community into the media spotlight

Last week, the world watched with great sadness as a Germanwings plane crashed into the French Alps, killing 150 passengers. This tragic event brought to the forefront numerous realities of crises today. News evolves in real time. The public’s appetite for and ability to get instant information is greater than ever. The days of having ample time to prepare responses to such occurrences are long gone.

When the crash took place, it could be understood that the immediate thoughts as to potential cause turned to bad weather, a terrorist attempt, a pilot error, or a faulty mechanical issue. In this case, however, things took an unexpected and sharp turn when it was discovered the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz struggled with a mental health condition and visual problems. Those factors seem to have played a key role in what many now believe was a deliberate plan to down the aircraft.

Suddenly, a plane crash became a medical and ethical story as journalists knocked on hospital doors for answers. And healthcare communicators found themselves intricately – and unexpectedly – involved in a major story.

Providing input or commentary on such a story must be particularly measured against the risk given the lack of specifics and detail around the circumstances. However, to have your organization be prepared as it can be, it’s important to constantly consider the broader types of issues you’re ready to discuss.

Obviously, monitoring the coverage as the story develops and changes direction is paramount. And part of that is determining the answers to the following key questions: Is it important to comment? Does it drag you into a situation that may become problematic or cause a lawsuit? Will your comments help or hinder the story or your organization?

One of the key rules of comms in a crisis such as this plane crash is to not take advantage of a tragedy. Your main job is to offer helpful comments that may provide balance or insight that may not otherwise be getting covered.  

Once you arrive at your answers to the above questions, one of your first points of focus is to identify the appropriate spokesperson, prepare him or her, and make sure they’re available to the media. In this particular case, an ethicist could prove to be a valuable representative. This person could provide a certain perspective around the disclosure of mental health issues while also shedding light on the best approach to ensure that jobs involving the public safety of others are subject to much more extensive screening.

Another wise option is a psychiatrist. Such a professional is trained to better explain how some mental health screenings take place and whether simple screenings conducted at the onset of employment are enough.

In all cases, of course, be sure to understand the competing messages and how they may impact your spokesperson. If you jump in, be sure to do so at the right time, which is when the media and public need you.

Another key factor in responding to breaking news such as this is to try and pull pertinent statistics that resonate with the topic, subject, and the public. How many Americans suffer from mental health issues at various levels of seriousness? How can this affect others and their safety? How can you recognize signs of mental health and what can you do?

In this day and age, it goes without saying that you must pay close attention to social media conversations, as well as the opinions of journalists. In the latter case, those reporters are already speaking with a variety of people and they are hearing more than you are about the specific story.

The unique circumstance around the Germanwings tragedy brought a variety of healthcare communicators into the mix that might not otherwise have been involved. In such cases, their most important job is to ask the right questions and do their best to assist without being opportunistic. Failure to meet those criteria can very easily put your organization’s reputation at risk of appearing insensitive to a terrible loss of life.

Eileen Sheil is executive director of corporate communications at Cleveland Clinic, one of the country's top nonprofit academic medical centers. Her column will focus on the myriad challenges of healthcare PR and topics related to the management of the comms function. Sheil can be reached at

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