No-one can hope to predict when a crisis will strike but you can be ready to limit the damage to brands and reputation It is the moment every airline executive dreads. To be woken in the early hours of the morning by the insistent summons of the telephone and then to hear the words: "Sorry to disturb you at home. I'm calling from Reuters news agency. We have a report that one of your aircraft has crashed. Could you please confirm some details for us?"

In an ideal world, that first call would come from your own airline's Operations Control Centre. But in an era of instant global telecommunications, it is just as likely that the media will hear of a major disaster as fast, if not faster, than the airline concerned - and certainly before every member of its senior management team can be fully briefed and mobilised. How well the airline succeeds in re-gaining the initiative and emerging from the subsequent media scrutiny with its reputation and credibility intact will be largely dependent on the time and resources it has devoted to preparing and rehearsing for this very moment.

The days when an airline could satisfy the media by simply releasing a press statement from its headquarters hours or even days after a major accident or incident are over. Satellite communications and the advent of global 24-hour television news channels mean the media can start broadcasting live coverage, or even pictures, from the scene of a major disaster, anywhere on the planet, within minutes. Global presence now means global vulnerability - an airline must be prepared to face the onslaught of the media wherever in the world it encounters a crisis situation, however far from home base.

To return to that first telephone call. The details are, of course, sketchy. Initial reports say the aircraft was a Jumbo Jet, en route to Australia. It has gone down with the apparent loss of everyone on board. A distress call was received from the crew, and the aircraft disappeared from radar somewhere over the South China Sea, northeast of Java. Rescue services have been mobilised, but no sign of any wreckage or survivors has yet been found. CNN news is broadcasting eyewitness reports from Indonesian fishermen who report hearing an explosion in the sky.

It is obvious to you that the media have been given bad information. Firstly, your airline no longer flies to Australia and in any case, you are an all-Airbus operator and do not have any Boeing 747s in your fleet. Yet the Reuters reporter insists that the flight concerned was yours, and is demanding that you provide official confirmation fast.

The most prudent course of action is to take the reporter's contact details and promise to call back as soon as you have spoken to headquarters. At this point, however, you are told by operations that an aircraft has indeed gone down, carrying your flight number and your ticket-holders, but it was operated by your Asian alliance partner. This airline took over your Australian routes as a code-share operation when the alliance was launched just six months ago.

Complicated? Consider the possibility that your Asian partner may have wet-leased the aircraft to provide additional capacity for the summer peak season. The aircraft was operating in your partner's livery and with its cabin crew, but with technical crew provided by the US-based lessor. For good measure, the flight also carried the codes and passengers of two other alliance partners, one from the USA and another from Europe, plus a token cabin crew member from each alliance partner was on board.

At this point, the realisation dawns that this is a situation which could rapidly escalate into a major crisis for your airline, for the other carriers involved, and for the newly-established Global Alliance. Unfortunately, no plan exists for delivering even the most basic information to the news media, let alone for co-ordinating a joint communications strategy among the airlines involved. In fact, you don't even have contact details to hand for your counterparts at the other alliance airlines. Who will speak to the press? What information will they provide? Who, if anyone, will speak on behalf of the alliance? What messages would help to maintain public confidence in the integrity of your own airline, and in the Global Alliance brand on which so many millions of advertising dollars have been lavished?

Is your airline going to hold a press briefing? If so, what information can you provide? Will representatives of the other alliance partners be present, and will they speak? What information is the Asian partner giving out? Have they released the names of your passengers to the news media, and were those names correct? Have they waited for you to notify next-of-kin? After all, this is not always required in some Asian countries. Have they published a passenger or media information number and, if so, do you know what information is being released? Who is the investigating authority, and what legal restrictions have they imposed on the flow of information in this case? Will your local manager at the aircrafts originating airport be authorised to speak to the press? If so, has he been media-trained?

The scenario described above may be hypothetical, but it is certainly not far-fetched. With the emergence of large alliances like Star and oneworld, it is commonplace for an intra-European service, for example, to carry up to five different flight numbers. How many of those code-sharing partners have ever sat down together to consider their communication strategy in the event of a major disaster on one of their joint services, however? Given the amount of money and corporate equity now tied up in the competing alliance brands, how much attention has been paid to the need to protect that investment in the event of crisis?

On the surface, the existing conventions are straightforward: in the event of an accident or incident, while each of the partner airlines is legally responsible for the passengers which they booked onto the flight, the aircraft operator is normally responsible for disclosure of information to the news media. Other parties involved may discuss issues which are specific to their own airlines, such as how many of their passengers were on the aircraft, and the measures being taken to help victims and their relatives, but they may not normally release information pertaining to the aircraft or the crew. In the hypothetical scenario described above, unless the parties involved had drafted a different agreement in advance, responsibility for releasing this information to the media would have remained with the lessor of the aircraft, which is technically the operating carrier.

A major airline disaster is a situation ripe for conflict and contradiction, elements on which the news media thrive. Even among the best-prepared carriers, the potential for confusion is immense: the first Swissair spokesman to address CNN after the Swissair SR111 crash in September was unable to confirm that the flight was a code-share operation with Delta. A subsequent spokesman confirmed that the aircraft was heading for Zurich (although SR111 was Swissair's only transatlantic flight to Geneva), and gave inaccurate numbers of passengers and crew on board. Competent professionals, doing their best, but overwhelmed by the demands placed upon them.

The airline industry is far from unique in its vulnerability to crisis, but it is unique in the number and variety of situations which can lead to a crisis, and in the potential impact which they may have on the public's willingness to continue suspending disbelief. In the case of an explosion at an oil refinery, how many motorists think twice about buying petrol the following day? Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for airline disasters, let alone the various other events which seem to befall airlines with increasing regularity: from near misses to pilot strikes.

If one considers that a crisis is best defined as a situation which may affect long-term public confidence in a company, or which may prevent that company from continuing to operate normally, it is worth examining how events can escalate into crises. This develops when the event reveals a fundamental weakness in the company or its products. It confirms or reinforces previous negative perceptions as, for example, the Valujet crash in 1996 appeared to confirm public suspicions about safety standards among low-cost airlines. The event may cause the media or regulatory authorities to pay undue attention. Again, the Valujet crash is a good example. Or the company's initial public response antagonises the media or other audiences.

The best recent example of the latter and most easily preventable category is the TWA800 explosion, where TWA's initially maladroit public comments fed the growing (and somewhat unfair) media portrayal of an airline which was uncaring and unresponsive to the feelings of the victim's families. The subsequent coverage could be dismissed as just media hype, but the public outcry it generated led to the introduction of the Airline Disaster Family Assistance Act, later extended to include foreign carriers, which has imposed a significant financial and logistical burden on airlines operating to, from and within the USA.

Effective crisis

Communications is not simply about persuading the media to correct inaccuracies or making sure photographers can't see the airline's logo on the tail of a wrecked aircraft. It is essentially about protecting the airline's investment in its brand and reputation, at a time when both commodities are under serious threat. In short, crisis communications should be regarded as an essential part of an airline's liability insurance: an investment for which there is no quantifiable return, until the very moment the airline needs it.

Reputation takes years to establish, but can be damaged or destroyed in moments. According to one survey, 80 % of all US companies which experience a major crisis, but have no prior plan to deal with it, go out of business, or are taken over, within five years. With a little foresight and preparation, however, an airline may capitalise on its unwanted hours in the media spotlight to remind the watching world of its defining values and qualities, a significant achievement for Swissair in aftermath of the SR111 disaster. As the Chinese characters for crisis remind us (Wei Ji), such a situation is both a threat and an opportunity.

Source: Airline Business