Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel, as Mark Twain once said.

What was good advice back in the 19th century, when newspaper technology had barely evolved from the days of rudimentary woodblock printing, is all the more true today – but with a twist.

With the advent of social media, every citizen now has his or her own barrel of ink. The digital might of ordinary citizens now has the power to bury the brand image of an airline in the seconds it takes for 140 tweeted characters to go viral. And that brand-destroying power presents arguably the most significant structural challenge yet to those charged with communicating on behalf of airlines.

Last year's IATA Crisis Communications in the Social Media Age conference in Istanbul offered a fascinating insight into how some of the major media "gatekeepers" view the evolution of this digital landscape.

Aaron Heslehurst, a presenter and journalist with the BBC – one of the most retweeted news organisations in the world – recounts how the impact of social media has changed the job of newsgathering irrevocably. "Listening has become far more important now," he says. "It has become more a conversation with the audience rather than dictating an agenda on a strictly need-to-know basis."

The advent of social media has challenged the monopoly of the journalist in directing and controlling the exchange of information, but good judgement still needs to be applied. As one senior journalist says: "Tweeting and the retweeting is the wind that can turn any story into a forest fire. What we are trying to do is build up a factual picture of what's going on and to do that as quickly as possible. We're trying to almost build a firewall of facts against that forest fire."

It is true that social media has destroyed many of the foundations on which the traditional print media was established – and the struggle between the two is a genuinely unfair fight. While the traditional media is held accountable for the views and values they present, social media punditry occupies seemingly unchallenged and unfettered territory.

The ethical framework that has long been cherished by traditional media remains one of its most respected features – and this is precisely why any airline communicator must target influential news brands. But the ability to break news in a fast-moving situation, such as an aircraft accident where lives have been lost, seems to have become the sole province of social media. Even so, while traditional media will often be beaten to scoops in dynamic news scenarios, it will often be the first to verify. So now traditional media emphasises claims to accuracy, which it trusts will be valued over speed – although speed is still hugely important.

The rate at which social media operates also has serious implications for the responsiveness of any airline in crisis mode, posing important questions over who is authorised to mount a swift, controlled response.

Stuart Bruce of SBA Associates advises industrial businesses on their social media strategy. He says that there is still widespread fear, uncertainty and doubt about social media, even though it has now been around for 10 years or more. Not only is there a fear of the medium itself, but there is also a fear of allowing executives to use it to its best advantage – swiftly, without the need to go through the layers of senior management for a sign-off that is absurdly obsolete before the ink is dry.

"How many times have you been in a meeting where the chief executive has listened to the lawyer rather than the communications director? Surprisingly often, I imagine," says Bruce.

One glimmer of hope for any airline communications professional is that journalists who have aviation on their beat and who hail from respected media channels really do value an ongoing dialogue with airlines – in "peacetime" as well as when disaster strikes. So airline communications professionals should ask themselves: just how many top-flight industry journalists do they have on speed-dial, and do they have something to offer on a reasonably regular basis to keep that dialogue fresh?

A highly competent investigation authority such as the US National Transportation Safety Bureau can often be of great help in advising airlines on the scope of media communications once an accident investigation has launched.

Kelly Nantel is the public affairs director of the NTSB, an organisation that prepares for its investigations with a well-thought-out and rehearsed communications philosophy. Its press briefings during an investigation are complemented by its use of social media – although communications are never made through social media as an initial step.

Crucially, the NTSB identifies a single spokesperson at the outset – the public face of both the agency and the accident – who has already received significant skills training and has the technical background to understand the issues.

"We usually get on site between six and 18 hours after an incident, and because we are not there for the initial phase, we have not been engaged in the first rounds of intense media coverage," Nantel says. The airline, airport and the first-responder community will have typically made media statements, which Nantel thinks is useful as it informs the public what types of organisations are involved.

Even at this stage, there are some limits to what you can say, although there is still a lot that can be spoken about. "Generally speaking, if you can talk about it the day before an accident you can talk about it after the accident," says Nantel. "But even that's not a hard and fast rule. For example, can you talk about an aircraft's maintenance records the day after an accident? No, you can't – because the investigators will be examining those maintenance records."

Nantel advises that airlines should concentrate on communicating condolences, as well as details about arrangements for survivors, family members and for employees, how it is accommodating its customers, how it is rerouting them, how it is working with investigators, the impact the incident is having on airline operation and general information about protocols and processes.

"What we always say is that the investigation is going to speak with one voice and that voice will be from the NTSB – but that doesn't mean you are silent in that process because we know you are intimately involved," Nantel says.

Social media now has huge importance for the NTSB, which had previously looked to the news media to tell its stories since it was established in 1967.

"We realised we were missing huge opportunities to communicate with our stakeholders all around the world in real time with factual information," Nantel says. "We asked ourselves various questions: if we were to delve into social media, could we do it in a responsible way, would it help to enhance our reputation as an open and transparent agency, could we do it with the staff that we had, and would it help give some additional exposure and understanding to our investigative and advocacy work?"

The answer to all these questions was yes, so the NTSB social media strategy was slowly rolled out at the end of 2010.

The reality, as Nantel freely admits, was that the NTSB was preparing for an "Asiana-type" event – the accident that occurred when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 (flight 214) from Incheon crashed as it landed at San Francisco in July 2013, leading to three fatalities. "We knew that that would test our plan – and it did," she says.

In that incident, Asiana had to wrestle with very challenging timezones. The accident occurred at 11:28 in San Francisco, which was 03:28 the following morning (a Sunday) in South Korea. Within a minute, pictures stormed into the social media space, including an image that a survivor posted seconds after exiting the aircraft via an evacuation slide. Wreckage shots were retweeted 44,000 times over the next half hour.

The NTSB first tweeted about Asiana 214 less than an hour after the crash. An hour later, the NTSB announced via Twitter that officials would hold a press conference at Washington National airport before heading for San Francisco. Deborah Hersman, who at the time chaired the NTSB, took on the role as the spokesperson for the Asiana crash and quickly become the "face" of the investigation.

Nantel insists that the enhanced transparency afforded by social media creates confidence and faith that the investigation is being conducted impartially, independently and thoroughly.

Although staff at Asiana's headquarters sprang into action, they were never going to be able to compete with the speed of breaking news, and media sentiment was starting to turn ugly.

Nantel has witnessed this wave of negative sentiment. "In the second phase of the cycle, once the news has been broken and the outline of the event has been relayed, we often see the start of an attempt to assign blame and find someone who is accountable and start seeking instant analysis."

For investigators, that is problematic, as it takes months – sometime years – for the real analysis to take place. But people want answers – and immediately.

The investigatory process can often leave an airline vulnerable and isolated, but this does not need to be the case, Nantel argues: "What happens when you don't say anything – which unfortunately too many organisations do? You end up in a situation where you seem to be hiding information, evasive, and you create a huge vacuum that others will fill."

In the case of Malaysia Airlines MH370, which disappeared in March 2014, rarely has so much news been created out of so little information. In the first weeks, at least, there was really only one piece of information: an aircraft had gone missing.

"After the initial confirmation, a vacuum developed, probably due to the fact that any answer to what had happened possibly lay in military primary radar," says a journalist who covered the tragedy. "This arguably caused all sorts of problems for the Indonesian government, because you simply cannot talk about that capability."

He adds: "That story went on to occupy the canvas for much of the time but it was one that was beyond the reach of any communicator, or of most journalists."

An airline will become a party member to an NTSB investigation if it needs its technical input – and it will then be required to observe strict protocols in respect of what it can communicate. But Nantel says there are many times the NTSB sits down with party members to discuss what information can be issued in the public domain and hears from the airline about issues they believe should be brought out in the media, something that needs to be raised or given context.

Failure to navigate the choppy waters of communications during an NTSB investigation can lead to violations of the party agreement, and this can have serious consequences. "For an organisation that is already trying to protect its brand, to be removed as a member of an investigation is adding salt to the wound," Nantel says.

Communications using social media should not just be directed at media audiences either, because it can be a vital channel to talk to those whose lives have been personally affected by a tragedy.

Robert Jensen is chief executive of Kenyon International Emergency Services and has deep experience of all aspects of airline crisis management. He speaks of the duty of an airline to transition the families of victims "from the normal to a new normal", to help them process what has happened and what to expect, and to ensure their loved ones retain their dignity as individuals and not merely as accident statistics.

Private Facebook pages and Twitter channels set up by an airline can allow families to share their grief and help them move beyond initial shock and disbelief. These channels can also be a conduit for unfiltered information – the finer details that are often overlooked by the mainstream media.

Preparation is key, however. "An accident is not a management exercise, it is a leadership exercise. It is about making decisions quickly," says Jensen. "The call that an aircraft has crashed and that 143 people won't be going home tonight – that has had the most profound impact on every CEO I have ever met. But the good ones knew it could happen and had a plan. That allowed them to go into action mode, allowed them to make statements, make decisions and reassure people."

As a follow-up to the Crisis Communications conference, IATA updated its document Crisis Communications and Social Media: A Best Practice Guide to Communicating in an Emergency, published on its website. A section on case studies has also been added.

Source: Airline Business