Crisis comms takeaways from notable calamities and missteps

Running the gamut from merely lousy customer service to the tragic events of 9/11, these cases studies offer lessons—citing positive and negative examples—for messaging amid turmoil.

Learning from PR blunder

During a crisis, every word matters, and timing matters even more.

What the message is, how it gets told, by whom, and even the communications channel used may separate great from disastrous communications. Poorly executed communication could seed confusion or panic, crush employee morale, and negatively impact productivity.

Studies have shown that leaders have a special role in reducing employee anxiety. In a Harvard University study of crisis communication after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many employees described the importance of hearing from the leader.

Here’s a deep dive into the lessons learned from research and case studies of well-known crises (such as 9/11 and the 2008 recession), and how you, as a communications leader, can ensure exceptional communication and empower your team to move forward.

Here are several striking examples of crisis communication; some provide excellent lessons in communication, and others teach what to avoid.

BP oil spill

Let’s start with one that had us glued to the news. The BP oil spill, which unfolded in the Gulf of Mexico 10 years ago, revealed a set of entrenched corporate attitudes, behaviors and assumptions that ultimately incapacitated BP leadership from responding more quickly and with greater attention to the costliest oil disaster in history.

There are a few lessons to learn from this:

  • Crises expose dysfunctional organizational cultures.
  • Leaders must recognize when a crisis can’t be spun.
  • Leaders must not deflect blame or attempt to score points.
  • Leaders must bring their teams and affected communities together.
  • True leadership is not a title and office—elected officials must remember this.

Paul Argenti, professor of corporate communication at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, sums up his best advice about communicating during a crisis: “I regularly tell my students and clients that you need to communicate early and often with your key constituencies throughout a crisis. Even if you’re still trying to understand the extent of the problem, be honest and open to maintain credibility. Approach the situation with empathy. Put yourself in your constituents’ shoes to understand their anxiety. You will sometimes get it right, and you will often get it wrong, but it is still better to be as transparent as you can.”


In early 2017, Uber went from one of the world’s most celebrated brands to a textbook example of crisis management gone awry. In just months, a barrage of missteps, allegations and lawsuits—including charges of sexual harassment and discrimination by CEO Travis Kalanick—placed the tech darling into the hot seat and raised concerns among its investors. 

Some key lessons here:

  • Create and publish a set of cultural values. Uber failed to create a community of values it could live by.
  • Engage discussions with employees as early as possible. Uber didn’t listen to employees early and often, and many times they were just ignored. They also ignored or treated bad behavior at the top too passively.

A letter from Kalanick on Uber’s website admitting, “I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up,” did little to instill confidence among investors and consumers. The PR damage was too far gone, and Kalanick would eventually resign as CEO in June 2017.

American Airlines in 2008 

In April 2008, American Airlines had to cancel over 3,000 flights to conduct urgent wiring checks, which grounded over 250,000 passengers. While dealing with this juggernaut issue, the airline failed to communicate in a way that instilled confidence and trust with its consumers.

Several missteps were obvious:

  • Communication did not immediately come from the top. It came initially from the VP of marketing, and then from the CEO three days later.
  • When the communication was sent, it was perceived as “sanitized” and more apologetic about the failure to ensure safety standards rather than customer inconvenience.
  • Failure to empathize with the customer. Statements like, “If in your travels you were among the many who have been personally affected,” were a generic approach to handling the crisis.

Athenahealth and the Boston Marathon bombings

The Boston Marathon attacks on April 15, 2013, disrupted a community and transformed the celebration of athletic prowess into a story of shock and grief.

During the subsequent manhunt in Watertown, Massachusetts, the management and employees of Athenahealth, near the epicenter, demonstrated a proactive and dignified approach to business continuity and crisis management. New hires receive a wallet card with VP Carolyn Reckman’s phone number, along with other emergency contacts. 

When gunshots were heard in the early morning hours of April 19, a concerned employee used that card to call Reckman. It was 4:30 a.m. She promptly sprang into action and contacted her crisis management team. By 5:30 a.m., the automated emergency contact system sent a message to all employees via home phones, cell phones, work phones, work email accounts and personal email accounts.

The company’s response made it a classic case study for crisis management.

  • Every employee could easily access the emergency contact system.
  • The system sent messages to every available channel, and company employees were treated empathetically—assured they wouldn’t be docked pay for staying home.

Whole Foods’ COVID-19 response

Although Whole Foods was aware enough to prepare for the situation, deploying a digital communication solution wasn’t appropriate for this personal communication problem. When workers at Whole Foods Market were notified that a colleague at the store had tested positive, they received a voicemail with sparse details or instruction.

Whole Foods had proactively developed a store employee communication channel via cellphones and was being proactive about gathering employee medical diagnosis data. However, company leaders didn’t put themselves in employees’ shoes when they designed their automated response communication.

If Whole Foods had a plan, even a rough plan, employees should have been told about it ahead of time, via their store or corporate managers.

Addressing such plans during daily standups between managers, and staff at the start of each shift would be invaluable for advance planning and data sharing with a trusted personal connection. The in-store manager is taking risks just like the other employees, and the company should provide these managers with accurate, proactive information to pass along to employees.

Managers and staff should have discussed detailed plans for what would be done when another employee is diagnosed, as well as what they expect of these infected employees and of the staff who work with them. They should have discussed current pandemic data and the actual, not overhyped, risks. With these plans clearly communicated, there would be no surprises, except for the diagnosis.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Ensure you have a direct communication channel with all employees, ideally both email and phone.
  • Discuss plans in advance, and if you don’t have all the details, tell employees you expect their help to figure it out.
  • Don’t rely on automation or digital communication, a crisis requires emotional support.

Marriott CEO during the pandemic

One recent example of authentic leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic is Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson. In a six-minute video to Marriott employees, shareholders, and customers on March 21, Sorenson delivered a humble, heartfelt and inspiring message.

Sorenson a number of things did to inspire confidence.

He chose to go face to face in a video to deliver the bad news about the impacts of the pandemic on Marriott’s global economics, not avoiding his own baldness from recent cancer treatments. In his talk, Sorenson delivered a difficult message with grace, compassion, vulnerability and hope.

He pulled the Band-aid off quickly and shared that the pandemic was unprecedented in its impacts on the hotel chain, with revenue down as much as 75%. Sorenson also announced he forgo his salary for the rest of 2020 and that his executive team would cut theirs by 50%.

The CEO also choked back tears as he described the difficulty of having to layoff highly valued employees. However, Sorenson ended on a note of optimism by stating that, “Together, we can and we will overcome this, and we’ll thrive once again.”

As one writer observes, Sorenson displayed authentic leadership in the face of a crisis by being transparently human: “In short, Sorenson lowered the shield. He was candid, vulnerable, humble, emotional and hopeful.”

Takeaways from this recent response:

  • Video is a powerful format to communicate an emotional response.
  • Authenticity, humility and hopefulness are always well received. When you have the option to tell the honest truth and be transparent with the news, you will be appreciated for not trying to dumb it down.
  • Tell the bad news up front. Especially when everyone knows the bad news, but not the extent of how bad the situation is.
  • Look forward with realistic optimism. Communicate an actionable plan to overcome your obstacles.

History is a great teacher. We can all learn from what’s happened, so as to not repeat mistakes.

In addition to learning from case studies and research, you can collect and analyze your own data. How do you know if your messages are received and understood? It’s important to get feedback from your employees and respond appropriately. Through simple surveys, and reach, readership and engagement analytics for your communications, you will have a feedback loop which will improve your communications over time.

Combining the lessons of the past with the data of the present is the path to a better future.

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