Crisis Communication

As a college student, I have my fair share of “crises”; daily mini-anxiety attacks, finishing papers last minute, or handling the everyday crisis that is relationships in college. When other college kids and myself talk about our crises the reality of the situation is, they are nowhere near the definition of a true crisis. The unexpected loss of a loved one, a severe injury, a business gone under; those are true crises. Though some people will never have to experience a crisis of that caliber in their lifetime, the idea of crisis is a very real one for the friends and family of Caleb Schwab.

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Caleb Schwab

Caleb Schwab, a 10-year-old boy, went to the Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kansas with his family on August 7, 2016. The young boy and his older brother, Nate, decided they wanted to go down the Verrückt, the world’s tallest water slide. There are weight requirements that would not be met if the boys rode down together so they were separated and both rode down with adults they did not know. Nate went down first and waited for his brother, Caleb, at the bottom of the slide. As Caleb rode the raft down the 168-ft. water slide, tragedy struck.

Caleb was killed instantly after being decapitated by the slides overhead guard. There was a trail of blood seen by many witnesses including Caleb’s brother Nate.

No one can deny that this event was a crisis, and unfortunately crises like this happen more than anyone would like; so why did I choose this one to discuss? I chose to discuss this incident because the initial statement given by the Schlitterbahn Water Park after the travesty complies a mountain of PR mistakes that should be analyzed and never repeated.

Watch Schlitterbahn’s statement made by Winter Prosapio here.


So what is wrong with this scenario, statement, and press conference?

1. There was obviously no crisis plan in place.

It is obvious from the opening of the statement that there was no crisis plan in place. Seeing that Schlitterbahn possesses tallest and most dangerous slide in the world, if for nothing else, they should have a crisis plan in place for severe injury or death.

2. The statement shows no true sympathy for the family.

Only 7% of communication is verbal. This means that, though Prosapio is says the park’s “thoughts and prayers are with the family during this difficult time,” the way she monotonously reads the poorly written statement from the paper in front of her, barely looking up, says otherwise.

3. When asked questions Prosapio does not give any information of value.

Not once does she answer a question with any valuable responses. Does she not know who is doing the investigation? Does she not know the outside source of inspections? I understand that a certain amount of anonymity is necessary in these circumstances, but this amount gives the impression Prosapio does not hold any information about the company she speaks for.

4. “To be honest, this is not something we have experienced.”

WELL I WOULD HOPE SO. Why was this even said? We are aware that the decapitation of a young boy is not something your park has experienced before. If this was the second or third time this has happened there would be a much bigger issue at hand.

5. She tries to pull attention away from the family and give it to the staff.

“Our lifeguards are critical and it will be very difficult for them to focus.” Yes, I understand that anyone who has witnessed or heard of this terrible event must be traumatized, but the initial statement, hours after a young boy has been killed, is not the time to voice that concern. The only concern at this point should be that of the mourning family.

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Now, I am no expert. I am merely a junior public relations major at Missouri State University, but one of my professors has always said there are three things you should think when analyzing work: 1.) What did you like about it? 2.) What did you dislike about it? 3.) I could do that better. Let me tell you, I truly believe I could have done that better. In fact, let’s make a new list; a list of items that should have been included in the statement.

1. An apology

Did anyone notice that this wasn’t included in Schlitterbahn’s statement? Some believe that saying you’re sorry means admitting fault, but it is near impossible to ignore who is at fault in this scenario. In addition to that, anytime anyone is killed on the premises of your company you should be sorry, if not for what you have done than for the suffering of those affected.

2. Cold hard facts

Though at the time there was not definitive answers about the boy’s death there are details that should have been known and voiced. Who is doing the investigation? Who inspects the rides? What are you doing to stop this from happening again? How are you working with the family currently? These are facts that could have easily been recovered and voiced. The more the public hears from the company in crisis, the less speculation is to be made.

3. The appearance of a plan

It perplexes me that this statement was so awful. There is no possible way that there was a crisis plan in place and within that plan this is the statement that was to be announced. Verrückt is the tallest water slide in the world. Its name translates to “insane” or “crazy.” Its opening was delayed four times due to safety issues. Multiple people had complained to staff about their safety harnesses not functioning properly. DON’T YOU THINK THERE SHOULD BE A PLAN IN CASE SOMEONE IS HURT!? I have no legitimate assumption as to why there was no plan for a very possible outcome, but all I can hope now is: one, an incident like this does not occur again and two, if it does there is a legitimate plan of response and action.

No one wants to think about the crises that may occur, but it is necessary in order to produce a plan in case tragedy does strike. Without a plan, you are a ship without a sail. You will float for a while, but once that big storm hits you will have holes in your boat, and then it is only a matter of time before you sink.



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