Taking ownership of a crisis response is crucial, no matter what the cause of the incident
Crisis Comms CREDIT Getty

Protecting your reputation after an incident is the ultimate challenge for any airline. If done right, the company’s reputation could emerge even stronger.

Talking about the cause of the incident is not possible until a thorough investigation is complete. But the airline must cooperate with the authorities and help victims and their families. Taking ownership of the response by acknowledging the incident and talking about what the airline is doing in these areas should therefore be the prime focus.

“Legal liability or blame can wait,” insists John Bailey, Partner and Managing Director, Ketchum Singapore. “What matters most is who will step up and try to make a bad situation better? Companies that don’t take responsibility—like BP after the infamous Deepwater Horizon oil spill—will find it hard to gain forgiveness or avoid reputational damage.”

Quick response

Leading the response after an incident—be it a delay, cancellation, or something more serious—is easier said than done.

In July 2018, for example, Aeroméxico Connect 2431 departing from Durango for Mexico City crashed on takeoff, with all 103 passengers surviving. The State Governor’s tweet beat Aeroméxico’s response by one minute and the carrier had to work hard to regain control of the situation.

It is very important to be honest and transparent with both the news media and general public

It is not uncommon for a third party to be the initial source of information. Best practice suggests that airlines issue a first acknowledgement of an incident within 15 minutes of notification. But reporters of all types on social media—including politicians—have many potential sources of information other than the airline.

There are passengers, other social media users, general news websites, aviation-specific websites that track flights, and even other airlines and stakeholders.

Passengers, however, have a contract with the airline. They, and their relatives, expect timely, accurate information and to know from the airline what their options are in the event of an incident, delay or cancellation. And the pressure for information becomes even more intense and spreads to family members if there are injuries or loss of life.

For communicators, this means there is a tension between speed, accuracy and completeness, particularly in a developing crisis. “That tension has increased exponentially now that the first indication of an incident or disruption may be via a tweet, photo or live-streamed images from people on the scene,” Bailey says.

Honest response

For Bailey, this is why taking ownership is so important. And it can be done without necessarily being the font of all knowledge.

Crucially, an acknowledgement of an incident is often response enough in the first instance. It may just say that a further statement will be issued as soon as possible.

In other words, from the airline perspective, any operational time gap is acceptable if that gap is filled with communication. In this way expectations can be managed. Generally, people understand that information may be scant initially, but a proactive airline is a reassuring sign that the airline is working toward providing further details as soon as possible.

“It is very important to be honest and transparent with both the news media and general public,” says Ross Feinstein, Senior Manager, Corporate Communications, American Airlines. “But it is also important to not speculate and provide inaccurate information either. The news media is monitoring social media 24/7, and most media use social metric monitoring tools, such as Dataminr, to alert them of any issues involving aviation. When an incident occurs, the media will be calling instantly.”

American suffered a brief IT issue in late July 2018. A Dataminr email alert was sent to media outlets around the world and just two minutes later the first call came in to the Corporate Communications department from CNN.

“While speed is important, we want to be accurate,” says Feinstein. “Media outlets and the general public understand if you respond and say that we are aware of the issue and looking into it. It is much worse to provide inaccurate information, then have to retract that information later on.”

To deliver on this strategy, American has a flexible crisis communications plan. In an IT disruption, for example, there is a member of the Corporate Communications staff that regularly works with the Chief Information Officer and the IT team to help provide real-time information.

Different members of the Corporate Communications team are assigned to different workgroups. This structure has the added benefit of promoting message consistency. When American releases a statement publicly, it disseminates that same information internally as well.

“Each year, we drill multiple times corporate-wide, and we also drill with our nine regional carriers that fly under the American Eagle brand,” Feinstein informs.

Professional response

Every crisis is different, and the speed of response and a well-structured communications strategy are vital for every airline. Any response must be fluid and able to divert to the areas of most concern. Done successfully, this can underpin an airline’s reputation. After all, it is not just how well an airline performs when operations are running perfectly, it is how well it performs when things go wrong.

For Bailey, the crux of successfully handling any crisis is understanding passenger needs at any given point.

“People will generally accept that delays or disruptions are often beyond the airline’s control,” he concludes. “But they won’t accept an unprofessional or uncaring response.”


Do’s and Don’ts 

To best protect an airline reputation in a crisis:

Do

  • be prepared
  • be quick to let everyone know what you are doing
  • be empathetic and caring
  • focus first on people—those affected and their loved ones
  • ensure the CEO is visible at the center of the response
  • take responsibility—but only for the things for which the airline actually is responsible
  • ensure complete alignment between words and actions

Don’t

  • allow a lack of information to delay your response. You can always say something     
  • avoid responsibility or try to blame others     
  • make empty promises     
  • use corporate speak or legalistic language     
  • keep the CEO out of view
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