It’s happened more often than you’d think… you spend months developing the “perfect” campaign launch, event or media tour for a client and, that morning, tragedy strikes. Suddenly, that newsworthy event is no longer a top priority and the campaign, or the brand itself, can be unofficially listed among the casualties.

Most PR professionals will tell you, the best strategy in those times is often to “wait it out,” until reporters are ready to give your message proper attention.

The challenge is multiplied, however, when the event that overshadows your timely message comes from within your own brand, such as was the case for the Walt Disney Company in June. In the midst of the brand’s biggest launch event of the millennium to date—the grand opening of the multi-billion-dollar Shanghai Disney Resort—a child was attacked and killed by an alligator on the grounds of its largest theme park, Walt Disney World.

Vaulting into crisis mode, the brand reacted quickly, as the company’s CEO called the family personally, the park’s president took the first available flight from Shanghai to Orlando, and the company issued a statement to the media offering condolences. However, as my colleague, Charlyn Lusk pointed out in The Wall Street Journal’sCrisis of the Week” column, the company struggled to properly address the tragedy in favor of heavily promoting the new venture a half a world away.

Granted, Disney did not want to lose momentum for an event it had spent billions of dollars and five years planning, but the fact that the company avoided any mention of the incident on social media, on its website’s home page and even its “news” page, demonstrates that it was not giving due attention to the loss of life.

When a death such as this occurs in the “happiest place on earth,” one would think the global brand would take more than a moment to address the needs not only of the family involved, but also those of all Disney fans who were grieving, asking questions and demanding answers.

While the grand opening in China could not and should not have been canceled, the media relations team there could have put a hold on new outreach surrounding the event while the U.S. media team focused on the response back home. Interviews promoting the new attractions could have been postponed a few days or a week, or the brand could have requested a delay in publication of any articles in light of the crisis.

While the Disney brand will thrive despite the Orlando incident, there is a lesson here for all companies in similar situations. Let the tragedy have its moment before trying to push out your agenda, lest your message, or your brand itself, become a casualty.

Brian Hyland

Image via Wikimedia Commons