• Barb Mayfield

What can the Titanic teach us?


an iceberg
"Iceberg, right ahead!"

Crises are events and situations that turn our lives upside down. They include natural disasters, health scares, economic upheavals, social unrest, and so much more. Some are experienced individually and many are experienced as a community or society. Some crises build over time and others slam us in an instant. Some are temporary and others are long-lasting. One thing they share in common is a need for effective communication. We need to know what is happening and what we can do about it.


“Iceberg, right ahead!” is a famous line from the blockbuster movie, Titanic. I chose it as the title of my talk for the Purdue Nutrition Science May Conference when I was asked to speak on the topic of crisis communication. The sinking of the Titanic is a classic example of how NOT to communicate in a crisis. In fact, what we often learn from a crisis is learned from our failures and mistakes. Here’s a fun clip from the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ARL6j3saws


History teaches us that the crew of the Titanic received at least 6 warnings of icebergs. Were they purposefully ignored? We may never know. We do know that the ship was woefully unprepared for this type of disaster and as a result, today’s vessels are constructed differently and have enough lifeboats for everyone on board. If you’ve ever been on a cruise you have been through the drill. The passengers on the Titanic were not so fortunate. Even in the midst of the crisis information was not well communicated. More people could have survived. The Titanic’s communication was NOT ready, reliable, or responsive.


It is a year since we collectively encountered the COVID-19 crisis. Think back over the past 12 months. Think about the crisis communication surrounding the pandemic. In the early days, we were inundated with news of the crisis 24/7. In addition to news, we received targeted forms of communication. Everyone wanted to let us know what they were doing in response to the crisis. Was all communication about the crisis equal? Which communications were helpful? Which ones were better ignored?


In my talk for the May Conference, we will explore lessons learned from past crises and then discuss 5 essential principles that create crisis communication that is ready, reliable, and responsive.


In preparation for my talk, I discovered several excellent resources on this topic in the Crisis and Emergency Risk Communication tools created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I have included a link to the CDC web page where you can find these resources at the end of the article.


Past crises have taught us much about how to communicate effectively. Let’s take a look at several key lessons we’ve learned:

  • Effective crisis communication is delivering the right message at the right time. As the CDC’s CERC resources state (1): “Bad news does not get better over time.” Research indicates that the first information received carries the most weight and later information is judged in comparison. As the CERC motto puts it: “Be first. Be right. Be credible.”

  • In a crisis, people take in information differently than at other times and the way they respond to a crisis varies greatly. In a crisis, expect people to experience fear, anxiety, and confusion. These are normal emotions, but your goal as a communicator is to prevent them from turning into feelings of hopelessness or helplessness. Provide positive ways the people you serve can protect themselves and their loved ones and productively participate in recovery efforts. These positive actions go a long way to prevent negative reactions.

  • A critical component of effective crisis communication is empathy, with research showing that an expression of empathy needs to be within the first 30 seconds of conveying a message.

  • Lastly, avoid these 5 crisis communication mistakes or failures: sending mixed messages, releasing information late, displaying a condescending attitude, not countering rumors in real-time, and power struggles between leaders. Would you agree that during the COVID pandemic, we have seen all of these mistakes made with negative consequences?

If tasked with providing crisis communication, how should it be handled?

I created a tip sheet at the onset of the pandemic which covers 5 key principles for communicating in a crisis. It is available as a free download: https://www.nutritioncommunicator.com/tip-sheets (Tip Series #27).


5 Key Principles for Communicating in a Crisis


#1 Inform messaging with reliable data Before creating messages, gather the most reliable data available. Look only to credible sources. Double-check all facts and figures. Use the data and information collected to develop messages that will be meaningful to your target audience using words and context they will understand. Provide your sources so people can seek out more information.


#2 Prioritize directives Determine what to include in crisis communication based on what your audience most needs to know. During a crisis, people are overwhelmed and don’t need to be inundated with extraneous information. Prioritize what your audience needs to know and how they need to respond for their safety and the safety of their communities. Help them focus on what is most important.


#3 Address fears Crises are scary. When people are scared they often make poor decisions. Communicate with calm. Address fears and help alleviate them as much as possible. Help people take measures that prevent the worst-case scenario that worries them most. Consider the audience’s emotional health and well-being when communicating during a crisis. Don’t ignore their fears.


#4 Provide clear action steps During a crisis, people feel a loss of control. By providing clear action steps, audience members can regain a sense of control over a previously helpless situation. Include in crisis communication steps people can take to help themselves and others get through the crisis and prevent future crises. Make the action steps realistic and easy to remember. Simplicity is key.


#5 Furnish timely updates Crises are often evolving situations. Communication needs to be ongoing. Circle back to the first tip and continue to gather reliable information and data to share with audiences through timely updates. Continue to prioritize directives, address fears, and provide clear action steps. When the crisis is over, evaluate the response to prepare for future emergencies.


Crisis communication saves lives. When the inevitable crisis occurs, be ready to communicate promptly, accurately, calmly, and clearly. Start with empathy. State what you know to be true as well as what is unknown. Provide more information as more facts become available. Help people know what to do and not do. During a crisis, people look to their leaders for direction. Provide it.


The CERC tools provide practical guidance in how to communicate in a crisis, including a pocket guide: https://emergency.cdc.gov/cerc/resources/pdf/cerc_wallet-card_english.pdf

"I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."

~ Abraham Lincoln

1. Crisis & Emergency Risk Communication (CERC) resources: https://emergency.cdc.gov/cerc/index.asp If you like this content, please share:

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