One small step for man, one giant step for crisis management

First Man is the Hollywood blockbuster from Universal Studios that’s currently captivating audiences across the globe in its visceral dramatisation of one of history’s biggest events: getting man on the moon.

Re-enacting the mixed emotions involved in NASA’S mission we’re reminded of the incredible bravery of the pioneers who put their lives on the line in the pursuit of a brave new scientific dawn.

Watching the film in the safety of a luxurious cinema my thoughts as a PR practitioner inevitably turned to the doomsday scenario– what if Apollo 11 hadn’t returned?

While we relived the anticipation and trepidation of the Apollo crew, their families and the nervous NASA staff in the lead up to launch day, the film revealed that the ultimate crisis management plan was already in place.

President Nixon did indeed have a statement to read out to the watching millions if Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were stranded on the moon. The words were the work of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author William Safire, and can be found at the end of this article

Safire’s speech was called In Event of Moon Disaster. According to the plans Nixon would first contact the widows to express his condolences before addressing the nation on television.  Mission Control would “close down communications” with the LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) and a clergyman would have commended their souls to “the deepest of the deep” in a public ritual likened to burial at sea. The speech, which surfaced in 1999, originated in a memo from Safire to Nixon’s chief of staff H. R. Haldeman in which Safire suggested a protocol the administration might follow in reaction to such a disaster.

As an agency which advises companies on crisis management I feel Safire has created a benchmark in sensitivity and planning.  As so often happens, a full-blown crisis protocol might never be enacted but when we advise clients a plan is in fact the starting point.

It is vital to know what to do when a crisis hits. Deciding on the hoof is simply too late and a lack of direction – or even worse being paralysed by panic – will only serve to exacerbate the situation.

On Wednesday November 7 I’ll be speaking at the Business Breakfast Club of AFC Bournemouth on this very subject.

I’ll be covering planning; assessing an incident before it becomes a crisis; why accepting blame (albeit in a limited way) can often diffuse things; dealing with the media and the all-important follow-up. I’m looking forward to it.

Now, reflecting on First Man, I think what was fascinating was that while the technology was primitive by today’s standards (The Times said that being aboard a space capsule was like sitting in a car engine bay) dealing with a crisis and, indeed the media, has hardly changed in 50 years.

Lee Peck
Image © 2018 Universal Pictures International All Rights Reserved


Here’s the full text of Nixon’s contingency speech:

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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