Preparedness is crucial to effective communications.
Effectively managing a crisis begins with thorough preparation – knowing where you are, where you should be and how you’re going to get there. As part of our crisis communications work for Airbus Americas, Xenophon Strategies conducted an audit in May 2001. We examined crisis plans, staffing and infrastructure, media issues and the preparedness to handle those issues, internal communications, command center sufficiency and coordination with outside entities. Empowered with recommendations that built on existing strengths and unmasked weaknesses, Airbus Americas was able to enact changes that would prove invaluable in the coming months.
"Effectively managing a crisis begins with thorough preparation; knowing where you are, where you should be and how you are going to get there."
On November 12, 2001, American Airlines flight 587, an Airbus A300, crashed in New York. It was the first crash of an Airbus aircraft on U.S. soil, and the first accident involving a U.S.-registered Airbus plane anywhere in the world. Xenophon Strategies provided assistance to Airbus Americas in a variety of capacities during the three-year investigation cycle that concluded with the NTSB findings and safety recommendations. The services provided included: crisis support, media monitoring and analysis, reputation management, technical expertise and preparation and support for the NTSB public hearing and Board meeting.
Xenophon immediately dispatched two senior staff members to the Airbus Americas command center in Herndon, Va., to provide strategic counsel to Airbus communications personnel. Xenophon media specialists analyzed coverage of the crash and provided insight into trends and potential areas of journalistic interest, and our experienced aviation professionals served as advisers on what to expect and how to proceed. As this crash was a “first” for Airbus in several ways, it was crucially important to provide seasoned guidance so that Airbus resources could be focused on victims and their families, and on the investigation.
News organizations must compete against the clock to bring people information 24 hours a day. Few stories garner more coverage than the crash of an airliner. This is most true in the U.S. media, where crashes receive intense, sustained coverage. The 24-hour news cycle, constant “story generation” by stakeholders and greater access to information have placed great pressure on all entities, particularly the airframe manufacturer, to prepare for the release of potentially damaging information throughout the investigation. Clearly, the filter of time no longer exists.
Given these realities, it is crucially important to monitor media coverage and provide analysis of existing and emerging trends. Xenophon provided Airbus Amercias with a baseline assessment of media coverage the day after the crash, enabling communications personnel to develop a focused media strategy. Xenophon also facilitated a “communications workshop” to discuss the need for enhanced internal communication, streamlined management of issues and logistical issues. Xenophon continues to provide daily media monitoring reports to Airbus that cover mainstream print and electronic media and trade and business press.
Journalists look to establish similarities and identify trends – and it was apparent that journalists were largely unfamiliar with the A300, and with Airbus Americas. Initially, the media clearly relied on publicly available information to augment their understanding of the aircraft itself, creating the potential for reporters to draw conclusions and make connections that did not exist. Even established journalists made comments that seemed tainted by a lack of knowledge. For example, Lisa Stark of ABC reported: “We do understand from Airbus that this plane did have what you call a glass cockpit, not the old dials, but it was not one of their fly-by-wire planes. They believe it was one of the old-fashioned planes.”
The news cycle of a crash is marked by peaks and valleys. As new developments occur, it is likely that the crash will again gain prominence, particularly as the story shifts from the human element and moves to causation. Spikes in news coverage typically occur when new information is released or uncovered, but stories also can arise when one party is eager to assign blame to another. In either case, a story will persist when news is slow and will disappear if other events warrant more attention. Over a three-year period, numerous news spikes necessitated attention by Airbus so that misinformation was eliminated. Constant media monitoring and issues management ultimately proved very effective.
Airbus faced unique obstacles that threatened its ability to maintain the stability of its reputation. This stems from unfamiliarity with innovations that have defined Airbus for decades – namely, fly-by-wire and composites – and the difficulties faced by a foreign manufacturer. The temptation always existed for reporters (and even investigators) to draw comparisons to Boeing, or to establish Boeing as some sort of benchmark. This type of bias consistently permeated news coverage. But, although other parties persisted in their efforts to indict Airbus and its A300 design, Airbus was steadfast in keeping to its core message – and backing it up with the facts. This approach is best defined as being selectively proactive.
For example, Airbus focused its attempts to influence news coverage by interacting primarily with knowledgeable aviation journalists at key U.S. newspapers and other publications, while episodic inaccuracies and gross exaggerations were monitored and corrected. This is most vividly illustrated by “negative training” stories reported throughout the investigation by Aviation Week & Space Technology and by Bill Adair at The St. Petersburg Times. Also of note is the role played by Airbus headquarters in Toulouse. Communications strategies had to be coordinated to the satisfaction of personnel both in the United States and France. Though never problematic, this dynamic required consideration.
All aircraft accidents pose technical challenges to communications personnel who must explain complicated systems to journalists writing for mass audiences and trade publications. From previous issues management studies, we knew that fly-by-wire technology and composites would be of interest in any Airbus crash. This held true for Flight 587, though neither played a role in the accident. Nonetheless, they were among several technical issues that required immense exploration and understanding. Other such issues included the rudder control system, loads analysis, certification and design requirements, structural considerations, and pilot training. Xenophon provided guidance to Airbus communications personnel on these issues, ensuring that complex subject matter was properly presented and explained to journalists – no matter their level of technical expertise.
Xenophon began preparing Airbus for the NTSB investigation process immediately. This training was particularly important for personnel in Toulouse who had no prior experience with U.S. commercial airline crashes. Preparation included: issues management, NTSB hearing familiarization training (conducted in Toulouse), logistical support, message development, and strategic counsel. During the public hearing, Xenophon provided on-site support and documented each day’s testimony in a report sent to top Airbus executives in Toulouse.
“The last time we worked together, Xenophon helped produce a strategic plan that ultimately transformed a bankrupt technology company with a stock option probe into a successful $2.1 billion acquisition.”