How Germanwings Failed at Crisis Communications

Living in Germany, I followed the news around the crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 closely. What surprised me was how bad the airline was at crisis communications. This can be a lesson for those of us who need to prepare for negative news.

Twitter will be faster than you

We now know that the plane crashed at 10:40. The first tweet about the suspected crash seems to have been sent at 11:36.

https://twitter.com/Jb_Redondo/status/580317159848587264

At this stage, Germanwings was quick to posted three tweets in German and English.

So far so by-the-book. Obviously, the airline can’t speculate. Sending people to their website was the right thing to do and I’m guessing that this was also written in their crisis communications plan. In fact, given the generic nature of the tweets, I’m pretty sure that these tweets were pre-written and saved in a folder called “in case of emergency”.

Alas …

Your website will go down

In a large crisis, your website will go down. That in itself is not a problem if you are able to adjust. Once the website was down, the airline should have continued to inform the public via social media about what they know, or even about what they are doing to find out more. Instead, nothing happened.

Instead, other sources filled the information vacuum left by Germanwings. Flightradar24 for example quickly posted the flight path as a CSV file as well as GPS coordinates including a graph that showed the rapid descent before radar contact was lost.

Shortly thereafter German media quoted French President Hollande saying that many Germans died in the crash.

But the Germanwings website was still down and they hadn’t posted any updates on Twitter. In other words: the airline was mute and looked entirely clueless. Don’t get me wrong: I realise that people at Germanwings were working frantically to find out more, but none of this was communicated. Even a simple tweet saying “Our crisis team has assembled and is talking to French authorities” would have been better than nothing.

Instead – more than 90 minutes after the crash – Germanwings finally retweeted a statement by their parent company Lufthansa, confirming that the plane had been lost. What airline needs another airline to tell the public that they have lost a plane ???

Information is more important than branding

Around the same time, and instead of providing information, Germanwings replaced their colourful logo with a black and white version.

I understand the intention behind this move, but given that they were not providing any information, this looked like they had their priorities wrong:

To me this looks like an external PR agency was dutifully going through the pre-written crisis communications plan, but without being connected with the Germanwings crisis team.

In the end, it took until 13:27 – 2.5 hours after the crash – for Germanwings to confirm what had already been reported all over the world.

It then took an additional 3.5 hours (until 16:55) before the airline released the same information in English – that is six hours after the crash! Sadly, there were no updates in Spanish, despite the fact that the plane had taken off from Barcelona.

All of this would be very slightly less bad, if Germanwings had been providing information on their website instead. However, four hours after the crash the website was still down and only this rudimentary text was up. Again, note how the German information was not translated.

Germanwings

After crashing, the Germanwings website showed this information. Note that the information that is available in German has not been translated into English.

Lessons to be learned

The point of this post is not to heap scorn on Germanwings. Rather, here is what we can learn from it:

  • In a crisis, social media is a primary information channel, not something “extra” that you can take care of later
  • If you are outsourcing your day to day social media management, staff with signoff authority need to quickly take control in a crisis
  • A prepared crisis communications plan is only as good as your ability to adapt to the real crisis
  • The person who manages your social media accounts needs to be in the loop
  • In a crisis you need to provide information, information, information.
  • Translate critical information

 What are your thoughts? Please share them in the comments!