Risk, Issues & Crisis

February 27, 2018

Aeroplane crashes – the ultimate crisis communications challenge


By Floyd Jebson, Consultant at Instinctif Partners Business Resilience

Managing any crisis is demanding, but of all the crises one of the most difficult to handle in communications terms must be when an aircraft crashes. Two starkly contrasting examples of how to handle, and how not to handle crisis communications around an aeroplane crash, are the PanAm explosion at Lockerbie, and the Kegworth air disaster, both from the UK.

When its aircraft exploded and crashed in Lockerbie in 1988, killing all passengers and crew as well as 11 people in the town itself, the airline PanAm hid behind a wall of silence. The company then attempted to conceal that it had been warned of the possibility of a terrorist attack, and rather than visit the site of the disaster, PanAm’s president chose to stay at home. Already in financial trouble, the airline saw passengers move to rivals because of a loss of confidence and two years after the crash, PanAm went bankrupt.

In stark contrast, when a British Midland plane crashed in 1989, killing 47 people, chief executive Michael Bishop was on the scene quickly, talking to the press and others, showing he was in control and concerned about those affected. The company’s PR manager went to the crash scene and worked with Bishop through the night, and at 4am gave a press conference. Bishop presented himself as a sympathetic figure with his simple account of the action he’d taken in response to a ‘profoundly distressing’ accident. He announced an interim payment to the families of the dead and injured, praised the emergency services, and helped the investigators. The end result was that a small airline, which could have been crushed by the weight of publicity, emerged stronger thanks to the positive public perception created. Far from falling, ticket sales held steady and then grew. In the longer term, the airline grew into BMI. It was eventually bought by Lufthansa, which sold it on for $239 million.

The most senior person in the organization has to be in the eye of the storm, facing the press and talking to those affected. Worrying about the legal implications of what may be said, and possibly implied admissions of liability, should not stop effective and compassionate communication.

The rules of engagement have moved on

Although still relevant to illustrate the ‘dos and don’ts’ of crisis communications, both of these examples come from the pre-internet, pre-social media era and the landscape has now changed irrevocably. In crisis communications, we used to talk about the ‘Golden Hour’ – the theoretical time within which an organization has the opportunity to establish itself as a trusted source of information before the story broke on traditional news channels.

The growth of social and digital media, coupled with a 24/7 global news agenda, means the Golden Hour is dead. Instead, we are dealing with the Golden Few Minutes before unprecedented levels of public scrutiny come to bear on an organization.

On 9th September 2015, a British Airways plane caught fire on a Las Vegas airport runway during take-off. Three minutes after this happened, a picture of the fire appeared on Twitter. The incident was verified by another user tweeting a similar image, flagging that it was a #britishairways plane at around the same time. This image then crossed over to Instagram and other social networks.

It’s highly likely that the London-based PR and communications team for British Airways and Las Vegas Airport were alerted to the fire via social channels at the same time (or maybe even before) their operations colleagues told them – a prime example of user-generated content setting the pace for crisis communications responses.

In today’s communications environment, the nature of breaking news is different:

  • News typically breaks on social media first, often near-instantaneously
  • Breaking news crosses geographic boundaries without delay
  • Initial report are informed by multiple first hand but unofficial sources
  • It is commented upon by people who often have little knowledge of the event, but sometimes a strong agenda

What this all means is that organisations must be well prepared to respond fast and get their response right first time, otherwise they will be excluded from the narrative.

In a recent study, 51% of journalists said they couldn’t do their job without social media. It has never been more important for organizations to communicate quickly, sympathetically and effectively across all channels.