Air transport is a high-stakes game. Every day, millions of people around the globe entrust the aviation industry with their business dealings, their freight, their visits to and from beloved family members, and their personal safety. These responsibilities make clear the importance of an airline public relations strategy and an airline crisis communications plan in particular. The higher the stakes your company operates under, after all, the greater the potential for major damage to its reputation in the wake of a mistake, glitch, or accident. You can be ready in advance to counter that damage with the airline crisis management tips we’ve outlined here.
Case Studies in Aviation PR
If you’re not already convinced that public relations in the aviation industry is imperative, perhaps we should remind you of some of the public relations challenges that have unfolded in this sector in recent years:
Man Gets Taped to Seat on Frontier Flight
On a Frontier Airlines flight out of Philadelphia, an inebriated passenger made headlines, groping two flight attendants and punching a third in the face before he was forcibly restrained and duct-taped to his seat for the remainder of the trip. Frontier Airlines issued two statements afterward, the first a boilerplate response to the incident that incurred the ire of a national flight attendants’ union, and the second a tailored explanation of the event and the steps the company was taking to address it. Frontier handled this promptly and still came under some criticism; just imagine how this news story could have spiraled out of control in the absence of an airline crisis management strategy.
United Airlines Drags Passenger Off Plane
In a situation far worse, from a PR perspective, United Airlines selected four passengers at random to remove from an overbooked flight in order to make room for its own employees. Three of these passengers complied; one refused to give up his seat. United called for airport law enforcement, and the dispute ended with the passenger in question being dragged, bloody and unconscious, from the plane. The fallout included multiple lawsuits and settlements, a revision to United’s policies, and a storm of negative media attention for the airline. People took issue most of all with United’s initial response, which was judged lukewarm and lacking in compassion for the injured passenger. If the airline’s crisis management strategy had been sharper, they might have avoided some of those consequences.
So, learn from the hardships of your illustrious peers (or maybe the hardships of your own company — Frontier, is that you?) and get a crisis communication plan for your airline or engage with an aviation PR agency. When something’s gone wrong and every minute between the incident and your response can exponentially increase the damage done, you don’t want to be running around drafting press releases from scratch.
The quirks of the current moment make communications plans especially opportune in aviation: in-flight disturbances have jumped 500% this year due to the introduction of mask mandates on airplanes, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has recorded over 80 pre-flight assaults on its officers since January. With the odds of an aviation altercation so inflated in 2021, airline crisis management has been getting more attention than ever.
Crisis Communications Plans in Aviation
An aviation or airline crisis management plan will have several interlocking features. After an unfortunate event, these elements help a company investigate and resolve the problem at its source. What’s more, they guide internal communications so employees understand what to do in similar situations in the future, and restore public trust in the company through external communications campaigns.
As for what an airline crisis management plan will look like in practice, it depends. The PR needs of one aviation company will not match those of another. There are several general rules to follow though:
- You want your PR people to stay closely connected to senior managers, if possible. The information pipeline between these entities should be short and wide, so the PR team has lots of information to work with and none of it is being lost or misinterpreted on its way from the company out into the world.
- Usually, you want to handle internal communications before working on the public side of airline public relations. Disseminating a unified message to your employees, including the stance of management on the event that prompted the PR response and guidance on how they should handle it in their individual capacities, will pay off later when your external communications are being scrutinized for tact and consistency.
- Demonstrating that your company cares about its effect on people’s lives can go a long way in an airline PR crisis. You need to reflect empathy for the customer experience, show that you have the ability to admit mistakes and a desire to correct them, and put new policies and procedures in place where necessary to prevent repeat adverse occurrences.
Airline Crisis Management Needs to be Handled with Care
Airline public relations strategies require a delicate touch, especially when things go very wrong. Minor crises are one thing, but in the aviation industry, larger tragedies sometimes occur that result in the loss of life. For obvious reasons, these events will take more intensive PR to address. For example, when two of Boeing’s 737 Max 8s crashed within five months of each other due to defects in the plane’s flight-control system, Boeing faced a monumental amount of work: First, they had the duty to provide whatever solace and compensation they could to the families of those killed. Second, they had to ground the fleet of Max 8s while making changes to the software, mechanical design, and pilot training modules. Lastly, they had to embark on a marathon PR endeavor — managing public perception after these fatal accidents. In cases like these, an airline crisis communication plan should be careful not to overstep. Providing clear, factual information and expressing sympathy should be the chief goals while the relationship between company and customer is fractured.
Coordinating Crisis Communications and PR
PR in aviation — and by extension, crisis communications — needs to be part of the overall marketing plan. Traditional ads, employee communications, earned media, social media presence, and the rest of your PR array should all line up with the company’s demographic research and attempts to break into new markets, etc. Target the audiences you deem most beneficial to your company’s goals, shape your message to appeal to the highest values of people within those audiences, and broadcast your message at the times and intervals that will raise its efficacy.
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We’re not strangers to the stress and complexity of airline crisis management. For assistance with keeping your company on the right side of the news cycle, reach out to us here.