6 lessons from a never-delivered Apollo 11 disaster statement

In 1969, a speechwriter had a statement ready for President Nixon in case the astronauts died on the moon. How prepared are you for a fatal crisis?

Lessons from Apollo 11 crisis comms

The White House prepared for the worst as Apollo 11 lunar landing vehicle approached the moon July 18, 1969.

Speechwriter William Safire—later a New York Times columnist—wrote a statement for President Richard Nixon to deliver in case the astronauts died on the moon.

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” Nixon would have read. “These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.”

Fortunately, the men made it back safely to worldwide euphoria. Still, Safire’s undelivered eulogy holds lessons for communicators today. When preparing your crisis playbook, are you readying to communicate—both internally and externally—in case of tragedies that involve loss of life?

Whether it’s a workplace shooting or a CEO’s death in a plane crash, fatal crises can hit any organization out of nowhere.

“Being prepared for the unthinkable is good thinking as part of a crisis communications plan,” says David Meerman Scott, co-author (with Richard Jurek) of Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program. “NASA public affairs people prepared. We all should so we’re ready.”

Here tips for preparing for the unthinkable in your organization:

1. Prewrite templates.

You know your major risks. Whether you ship oil from the Persian Gulf or build skyscrapers in Chicago, think through the disasters that could befall you.

“Having a range of template statements prepared in advance—that can be called up instantly and adapted to breaking scenarios on the fly—is a best crisis communications practice,” says Nick Peters, senior vice president of CommCore Consulting Group. “This is especially true if you know there is a specific risk in play, as was the case with Apollo 11.”

Put together various crisis scenarios and related press releases, some of which deal with tragedies, adds Gil Rudawsky, vice president of GroundFloor Media. The idea is to have at least a starting point to work from when a crisis hits.

2. Show empathy.

“It seems like a no-brainer,” Rudawsky says, “but during a crisis sometimes people are so overwhelmed by managing the crisis they forget to take a step back and understand that many people are affected by a tragedy. Being empathetic goes a long way toward managing a company’s or organization’s reputation.”

3. Line up approvals for social media posts.

In the social media era, you don’t have all day to get out a statement after a tragedy.

“Consider the different things that could go wrong and have social media posts (blog, Twitter, etc.) ready to push the button quickly if need be,” Scott says. “Have signoff ahead of time with legal and C-suite as needed.”

4. Prewrite obituaries.

Certain people in your company are obviously significant enough to be noted should they die. Yet often it’s hard to pay tribute properly in the midst of a crisis.

“When I was a newspaper editor, we used to pre-write obituaries for notable people who were getting older or sick,” says Rudawsky. “The trick was to try to get comments from friends, family and co-workers knowing the person was still alive, and then to actually remember that there is a mostly written obit ready when the person actually dies.”

In that eventuality, you have a well-written, thoughtful tribute to a notable personality, Rudawsky adds.

Similarly, when former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens died at age 99 on Tuesday evening, NBC and other networks had prerecorded videos about his life and works “in the can.” Live anchors delivered the specifics of his death, and the video provided the larger narrative.

If it makes you uncomfortable to approach the Big Kahuna on to write up an obit, how about interviewing him or her for a podcast? Throw in biographical and anecdotal questions, too: What’s your best memory from your time at ACME? Such personal reflections also liven up the podcast. Write up the interview, and have it ready in case of emergency.

5. Identify others whose deaths might call for a statement.

It’s also important to think through which other people would merit a mention from the company. If you work for a global giant of 100,000 employees, a non-executive’s heart attack in a softball game might not warrant a full, companywide statement.

Then again, if that same person died in an assembly line accident or shooting rampage, be prepared to respond.

6. Know whom to notify, and who is next in line to the throne.

Your playbook should map out a “line of succession” in case a senior leader dies in an automobile crash or climbing K2. (Having a line of succession is also important in non-fatal crises, in case your executive is on a 13-hour plane trip to Beijing when the cow pies hit the fan.) Create a calling tree so that people know whom to call and to whom they report.

Are there relatives, significant non-employees, clients and partner organizations who should be notified? Safire’s memo noted that the president should telephone each of “the widows-to-be”—Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s wives—before notifying the public.

It also recommended that a clergyman adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, “commending their souls to ‘the deepest of the deep.’”

The tone was appropriately somber and elegiac. Fortunately, Nixon never had to deliver it. But it was wise to have the statement on hand, rather than rushing to the typewriters only after catastrophe hit.


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