We have written previously about the need to have a crisis communications plan in place before disaster strikes. Last week’s crash of an Alaska Airlines jet off the coast near Los Angeles is a superb — if tragic — example of how a carefully thought through crisis response plan sitting on the shelf can make heroes of figures who, with less planning or forethought on the part of the company, could have been portrayed as monsters.
The response of the airline in the hours and days following the accident may well be remembered, discussed and have case studies written about for the next 25 years in the same favorable light as Johnson & Johnson’s open and candid reaction when people were dying from poisoned Tylenol a quarter century ago.
Few organizations are ever likely to face the gut-wrenching events that come with an airline crash — or the global media attention that follows one. But Alaska Air’s handling of a deadly, delicate and rapidly evolving situation should be a lesson for every executive who may pick up the phone one day to hear someone say, “We’ve got a real problem on our hands.”
Off The Shelf
In reviewing how airline officials made themselves available to reporters, and the way the company used the Internet to post information, it quickly becomes obvious that a lot of thought and attention to detail was given in advance to how it would handle the loss of an aircraft.
When tragedy struck, as it inevitably does in the airline business, everyone in the company who would have contact with the public — directly or through the media — could pull the plan off the shelf. Everybody followed the same drill and communicated the same messages.
Company spokesperson Jack Evans said “Our first job is to take care of the families, but the thing that they tend to want most is information.”
Within minutes of the Federal Aviation Agency reporting that the Coast Guard was searching for an airliner in the ocean off L.A., Alaska Air issued a statement giving the flight number, aircraft type and itinerary. It also released a preliminary count of the number of passengers and crew believed to be on board, a number it updated at least once during the evening, as new information became available. Shortly after, Alaska’s chief executive officer held a news briefing in which he read a statement and answered questions from reporters
From that first media contact and on through the evening, the airline kept repeating three key messages it knew it had to communicate along with whatever facts were known to it. First, the airline expressed sympathy for family and friends of people on board the doomed plane. Second, it stated that specially trained airline personnel were being sent to San Francisco (a stop along the way from Puerto Vallerta), the final stop of Seattle and cities to which passengers were connecting to help the bereaved deal with their loss. Third, it was co-operating fully with government investigators. These three points were repeated several times during the evening at briefings and in television interviews.
The key messages were followed by a recitation of facts, as they became known but time and again they began with this message from company spokesperson Jack Evans. “Our first job is take care of the families, but the thing that they tend to want most is information. And, we decided early.
As a result, the public believed that the company’s primary concern was for the living — not for its lawyers, who may have preferred the airline say nothing other than a straight reciting of cold, impersonal facts.
Just as crucial, the airline knew how to use the Internet to keep reporters and the public informed.
Within hours of the disaster, a special web page appeared in the Alaska Airlines site. As they were issued, new statements were posted throughout the evening and following day. There was a page for journalists which included a toll free number staffed 24 hours a day — along with a plea for the public to use another number if seeking information about passengers who may have been on the plane. It also had a link to the websites of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane accidents, and McDonnell Douglas, the crashed plane’s manufacturer.
The airline’s spokesman also tacitly acknowledged the web’s research capability, and he did reporters a favor by doing some background work for them. Knowing that journalists would dig into Alaska Airline’s safety record, at a late night briefing that aired on CNN he provided details on the carrier’s previous two fatal accidents as well as three other incidents that did not involve crashes but did result in loss of life in two of them.
With that simple gesture, he made a lot of friends among reporters covering the story and further portrayed the airline as not trying to hide anything.
Interestingly, as investigators learn what made the flight plunge into the sea, the airline’s public openness did not change materially when it was found to have been negligent in maintenance. Still, no one suggests that legal liability should be admitted in the name of full disclosure during a crisis.
It is imperative for every business, hospital, institution and organization to have a carefully detailed crisis communications plan in place — just in case. For example, computer companies are welcomed as clean business, but if there is a fire in the assembly factory and chips burn, poison pollutants are released into the air. Hospitals care for people but on occasion hospital personnel have been convicted of lethally injecting patients. A construction company may think of media as an opportunity to share the opening of a new development, but what happens if a worker falls off a crane and dies? A not for profit can become the target of embezzlement.
Crisis communications plans are time consuming to prepare and keep updated, and it takes even more time to train and prepare officials who will become the “face” seen by reporters and the public.
More than perhaps at any other time in an organizations life, the need to know in advance what to say and do is imperative before a chief executive picks up the phone to hear someone say, “We’ve got a real problem on our hands.”