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  • Writer's pictureGuillermo Sohnlein

OceanGate & Titan - Lessons Learned in Crisis Communications

[This post originally appeared as a LinkedIn article on 27 June 2023.]

Over the past week, as the co-founder and former CEO of OceanGate, Inc., I have been embroiled in the global media frenzy surrounding the tragic demise of the Titan research submersible near the wreck of the Titanic in the North Atlantic Ocean. In a 48-hour period, I gave more than 20 interviews to outlets such as CNN, BBC, FOX News, the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, and many others, in the US, the UK, and beyond.

Now that the news cycle has moved on to other stories, I thought I would share some "crisis communications" lessons learned that may benefit fellow entrepreneurs, CEOs, and Board members.

  • MEDIA PLATFORMS. Live news coverage and social media are terrific platforms for getting up-to-the-minute information, but they are TERRIBLE platforms for getting facts, truth, and context. If it gets this far in the coming months, I'm hoping that future incident investigations, courtroom litigation, congressional hearings (despite the partisan politics), documentary films, and books may be better platforms for discovering and sharing the whole story. At least these are prepared without the urgency of time or quickly shifting news cycles.

  • PROFESSIONAL JOURNALISTS. I have renewed confidence in the US Constitution's protection of "freedom of the press", because every single journalist I spoke with was professional, respectful, and courteous. Yes, they asked me tough questions. Yes, they pushed me and challenged me. However, they were simply doing their jobs, and they did so while treating me like a human being who had just lost one of his close friends in a horribly tragic high-profile incident. I truly appreciated my interactions with each of them!

  • EDITORS. Despite my positive feelings about the journalists I spoke with, their editors (who I never met) were completely different. I don't know how many headlines I read that were sensationalized, misleading, or factually incorrect. Heck, most of them were even inconsistent with their own journalists' content in the articles or videos. It was clear that they knew their audience would read only the headlines and not bother with the main content. This part was infuriating, because it basically eviscerated any positive feelings I had about the mass media based on my interactions with their professional journalists.

  • SOCIAL MEDIA. Holy cow! What a cesspool of hate, ignorance, and blowhards! I certainly expected differences of opinion, given the various perspectives put forth in the mainstream media by "experts", but I was not prepared for the level of vitriol hurled at the main characters in the narrative and even at each other on people's social media feeds and comments sections. It is quite difficult not to take it personally, and I had to fight the urge to respond in kind to many statements. As much as I appreciated my friends and colleagues coming to my defense, thankfully(?) the negativity was SO prevalent that it became almost sad. I completely lost faith in the bulk of humanity and started to question the US Constitution's protection of "freedom of speech" that I served four years as a Marine to defend.

  • SUBJECT-MATTER "EXPERTS". I have not yet spoken with anyone at the company, so I assume that they have been on communications lockdown due to pending investigations. Since none of them was available to talk with the media, journalists relied on other subject-matter "experts" to help analyze the situation. Unfortunately, two things happen in these types of scenarios: (1) for a highly technical niche field like deep ocean crewed submersibles, there are not too many true experts in the world, so the media had to rely on a lot of people who did not really know what they were talking about; and (2) the few legitimate experts who were able to make their voices heard (all of whom I respect as colleagues and even friends) unfortunately did not have access to any of the data required to turn their thoughts into quantified analysis rather than pure speculation. Sadly, the general public cannot tell the difference.

  • PR FIRMS & CRISIS COMMS PROFESSIONALS. When this tragedy first unfolded, I was speaking at a conference in Vienna and then back in my Barcelona AirBnB. Except for a couple of extremely supportive colleagues in Vienna and my girlfriend traveling from the US to join me in Barcelona, I took on this media frenzy with no professional support from a PR or crisis communications team. Let me just say that I now have a MUCH greater appreciation for the work these folks do! They really earn their keep. [Even though I have previously undergone "media training" and have fairly extensive experience talking with journalists, doing so during a crisis--especially one that was so personal to me--was a completely different effort.] I hope that I never need to retain their services, but I would certainly recommend them as absolutely crucial.

That's it for now. I'm sure I will share more in the coming weeks and months.


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