At various times in our personal and professional lives we’ve all said, “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.” That’s fine if you’re talking about an unexpected play in a baseball game, or a surprising revelation about a celebrity on the national stage.

When it’s notOK to be surprised or taken off guard is  at a time there’s potential for a crisis in your organization. We see examples every day of companies, businesses, individuals – even highly respected universities – that did not adequately anticipate a major reputational crisis.

As a result, they are caught flat-footed, and their initial comments to the press or on social media are weak, ineffective or totally “tone deaf.” Three recent examples immediately come to mind.

A major U.S. airlines dragged a passenger off one of their planes when the flight was overbooked. The video of the doctor – bloodied, screaming, and distraught — was captured on passenger smart phones and replayed thousands of times on social media and news websites.

The airlines’ initial response: they had the right within their existing policies to “re-accommodate” the passenger on an overbooked flight.  While I never spoke personally to the doctor, who was traveling to perform surgery the next day,  I suspect he did not feel particularly “re-accommodated” as he was being dragged feet-first down the center of the cabin by air marshals.

Then there was the incident in Philadelphia at a major coffee chain where two African American men were arrested by city police because they did not immediately make a purchase and were viewed by company employees as “loitering” or “trespassing.”

I don’t know about you, but as a business owner I’ve waited for friends or potential clients in this coffee chain on numerous occasions before I actually ordered myself a fancy latte’. And no one ever called the police about me. I think we can all speculate as to why.

As video of the arrest – everything these days is captured on smart phone video – spread to social media, and instantly became international news, the coffee chain’s first response out of the gate was to say they were “disappointed” that the incident led to an arrest. Disappointed?  I’m “disappointed” when my fancy coffee shop drink is a little lukewarm.

Fortunately, the company quickly assessed how weak and ineffective that initial social media statement was and “righted the ship” within 48 hours. The CEO’s heartfelt apology on the chain’s website was praised by many communications professionals for hitting all the right notes.

But by then, the damage to their corporate brand and their reputation had already been done.

Closer to home, a major university’s football program was recently the subject of a scathing report from a well-respected national media outlet. The shocking ESPN story centered primarily on a 19-year-old football player who died after falling ill on the practice field this past June, and the “culture” within the football program that may have contributed to that horrific tragedy.

From the outside, it would appear that the university’s public reaction to the player’s entirely preventable death was tepid and lacking in empathy, from June up until the ESPN expose’ broke in mid-August. Within days after the story broke, the university launched a very public, seemingly heartfelt and apologetic statement and promised a full, thorough investigation into the “toxic culture” that some believe characterizes the football program.

Once again, unfortunately, the crisis communications response was a case of “too little, much too late.” And it may very well cost the head coach his job.

In each of these instances, the institutions involved may have said, “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.” Who possibly could have predicted a doctor being dragged off a plane, two men being arrested inside a coffee shop, or a college football player collapsing and dying on the field?

To suggest that the institutions involved could not have foreseen those scenarios is a crisis communications 101 failure.

Proactive preparation is the key to effective crisis communications, not execution. But how can you possibly prepare for an event that hasn’t happened yet?

Feldmann Communications Strategies can help you answer that question, and many others. Don’t wait until you’re confronted with a crisis to map out a course of action. In the 24/7 media and social media world in which we now live, you don’t have the luxury to thoughtfully strategize when it hits the fan.

Want to learn more? Visit our www.FCStrategies.comwebsite or email me at [email protected] set up a free, initial crisis communications consultation. Who knows, we might even decide to grab a cup of coffee at a well-known national chain to start our collaboration!


Ray Feldmann is President and CEO of Feldmann Communications Strategies LLC, a public relations and communications firm based in Annapolis, Maryland.