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Plan, Plan, Plan: Crisis Communication Lessons Learned from Apollo 11

By: Mike Vannest, APR 

On July 20, 1969 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Landing Module (LM) and uttered the now famous phrase: “That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.” The United States and the rest of the world celebrated while others breathed a collective sigh of relief. One of those being President Richard Nixon. 

Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, relaxed knowing the mission was complete and he didn’t have to activate his crisis communication plan in the event of a disaster. 

Nixon’s crisis communications plan was released to the public in 1999 when a former communications aide, Williiam Saffire, told Meet the Press of the speech he wrote, titled “In the Event of a Moon Disaster.” 

The Saffire note and the plan, now 50 years old, draws out how the president and NASA would handle the most unlikely and catastrophic event for Apollo 11 – what to do in the event of a mission failure.

As PR professionals, the crisis plan presents many items we should always include in crisis communications strategy today. Here are five elements to forming a crisis communications plan based off of the Apollo 11 mission failure plan.

1) Prepare for everything and anything.
NASA and the president’s staff left nothing to chance. They planned out every disaster scenario and how to react to those scenarios as well as how to communicate to the public. The organization planned for things that even included how to handle contact with alien life form. 

As PR pros, we need to be ready for everything from the small to the large and anything in between. The more events we are prepared for the better our response is.  

2) Show empathy.
During a crisis the ability to show authentic empathy to victims and their families is crucial. Empathy in a huge crisis shows you and your company care about what is going on and who the situation affects. 

President Nixon shows empathy throughout the speech by communicating that he understands the magnitude of the situation and how “noble” the astronauts were in “laying down their lives.” 

3) Communicate with internal stakeholders first. 
It is documented in Nixon’s plan that the first people he would communicate with would be the soon-to-be widows of the astronauts, followed by NASA officials then the American public.  He does this to create goodwill, build trust and deliver a clear message in the heat of a crisis. 

It is important as PR professionals that we always inform the most important stakeholders first. This allows for control of the message being delivered and most importantly maintain trust before the issue gets out of hand. 

4) Timing is everything.
The first hour is far and away the most critical during a crisis. This is especially true as social media becomes the most visible channel for breaking news. Some professionals call this the Golden Hour and handling this time frame correctly can determine whether or not your situation becomes a full-blown crisis or is a small manageable event. 

According to a presidential document preserved in the National Archives, NASA and Nixon, would, in the first hour, contact key stakeholders, then address the American public and, according to Saffire “deliberately 'close down communications to the astronauts,' the euphemism for suicide."

5) Evaluate and analyze.
While no evidence exists on if NASA and the president’s staff had crisis communications evaluations protocols in place to measure any “success” of the plan, it is critical communicators have a plan in place to evaluate all parts of the communications strategy. 

Evaluating the plan provides the opportunity to monitor the goals and effectiveness of the crisis plan and make any changes deemed necessary. 

The Speech (courtesy of space.com): 
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

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.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations.

In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

 

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