American Airlines braces for most turbulent journey
by Sherri Deatherage Green and Claire Murphy, PR Week USA , Nov. 11, 2001
Arguably the carrier most affected by the September 11 attacks, American Airlines has implemented major communications plans on every level. Sherri Deatherage Green and Claire Murphy look at the airline’s disaster response.
American Airlines ramped up a newly revised crisis communications plan in late summer. Those charged with imagining worst-case scenarios laid out contingencies for plane crashes and 1978-style hijackings. They never dreamed of terrorists turning two aircrafts into weapons of mass destruction, of coordinating disaster communication with another airline in the same predicament, or of working in the shadows of the FBI.
“This was not going to be a crisis-as-usual situation for us,” says Timothy Doke, VP corporate communications for Texas-based American Airlines. Driving down a freeway September 11, Doke learned American Flight 11 had crashed into the World Trade Center. By the time he reached AMR’s crisis command center in Fort Worth , he found out the second tower had met the same fate. Word of Flight 77’s dive into the Pentagon soon followed.
A whole new strategy
“In a very odd way, that to me changed the whole dynamic of what we were dealing with,” says Doke. “Strictly from a PR standpoint, it had a bit of a calming effect. It was apparent to me that this was something that could not possibly be the fault of American Airlines.”
American abandoned its freshly minted crisis communications plan almost immediately, not because putting the CEO out front isn’t the best plan of action in a crisis, but because the FBI rushed to American’s command center and made it clear who was in charge. American issued its first press release within a few hours of the attacks, referring all questions to the FBI. In any other crisis, it would have responded much sooner.
Even without the risk of compromising a criminal investigation, Doke doesn’t think turning CEO Don Carty into a spokesman for the tragedy would have been appropriate. “It became increasingly obvious to us that the CEO for this crisis wasn’t Don Carty or Jim Goodwin (former CEO) of United,” Doke says. “The CEO in this instance was George W. Bush.”
Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in Colorado , thinks American did the right thing. “We didn’t know what the situation was,” he observes. “In an act of war, American’s corporate objective takes a back seat to America ’s objective.”
American couldn’t say much, but its communications office remained staffed 24 hours a day for more than two weeks. “The toughest thing is the first day when everybody comes in and wants to jump immediately into the crisis,” Doke says. “You have to tell a third of them to go home and get some sleep.”
Agencies spring into action
Doke immediately called Ken Luce, president of Weber Shandwick Worldwide’s Southwest US office. The agency sent more than 20 people to American’s headquarters and to airports around the U.S. Unable to get around by public transport that day, two of WSW’s New York employees hitchhiked to La Guardia, Luce says.
“It seemed like every media call raised a new issue,” Doke recalls. While American couldn’t answer many questions, spokespeople subtly steered reporters away from false rumors and leaked information. Employees from WSW and American’s other agency, Burson-Marsteller, served as the firm’s eyes and ears in the airports its staff couldn’t reach while planes were grounded.
American’s attention turned inward to employee communication. Staff bulletins became an important means of communicating to the outside world as well. The airline took the unusual step of putting such messages on its public website, Doke says. These included transcripts of “hotline” voice-mail messages from Carty. The CEO made several special recordings in the days after September 11 to reassure staff. Management received an average of seven e-mails a day in the first few days to keep them updated.
By Sept. 28, the PR staff, like every other department in the cash-strapped airline, had to do more with less. Five of the 20,000 employees laid off by the airline worked in PR, reducing headcount to about 40, including 10 people who work in the company museum. Doke reorganized remaining staff and assigned each employee responsibilities on both a subject-matter and geographic basis.
Tighter budgets also mean less outside help. “We’ve had to cut our professional fee budget substantially,” Doke says. That has cut into the fees paid to both WSW and Burson.
Necessary cuts start at the top
Once American was able to talk more freely, messages focused on finance and security. Airlines depended heavily on the Air Transport Association to communicate with Congress about the need for emergency financial aid. Burson, which does public affairs work for American, supported lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Carty chairs the association board but deferred to other CEOs, like Delta Airline’s Leo Mullin, to speak on the industry’s behalf.
Again, Carty’s strongest messages were directed to employees while also addressing the broader public. A Sept. 28 letter explained the decision to cut staff. Titled “An Airline in Crisis,” the no-nonsense document made it clear that belt-tightening is crucial to the airline’s survival. “The losses we face are truly staggering,” Carty wrote, going on to explain how the airline loses money each time a half-full plane takes off. “Right now it is survival, not profitability that is our core challenge.” Carty took an equally frank approach in an Oct. 24 letter announcing the company’s worst financial quarter ever, describing steps taken to keep planes in the sky and appealing to employees for help.
The airline’s CEO appeared as the industry’s elder statesman, says Dr. Adam Pilarski, SVP of aviation consulting firm AVITAS. Perhaps Carty’s most well-received gesture was fore-going pay for the rest of the year.
“I don’t know if the public paid much attention at all, but I know the press did,” recalls Washington Post reporter Frank Swoboda. Other American officers and the CEOs of competing airlines, such as Continental, followed suit. The company also set up a website through which staff could donate pay to their employer, a successful program that will save millions, says Doke.
On the safety front, American issued press releases about its plans to fit iron bars to the insides of cockpit doors. But such issues lie largely within the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration, and many safety measures can’t be discussed for security reasons.
One pressing need now is to “get people back into the air,” says Marty Heires, American’s field media relations director. In addition to offering low fares and double frequent-flyer miles, the airline is again using internal communication to boost bookings. It e-mailed employees encouraging them to offer 5-percent discounts to friends and family. American also recently launched a campaign called “Proud to be American” to boost the morale of workers stressed by increased security requirements, long hours and the loss of coworkers to layoffs and tragedy.
As for that new crisis communications plan, Doke says he doesn’t know if it needs wholesale changes or just an addition on terrorist attacks.
“This event is such an anomaly as it relates to crisis communications planning,” Doke says. “I think the bed-rock principles will be the same — be available, be open and honest, and be as forthcoming as we can possibly be.”