The Crisis in Air Show Crisis Communications

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The 1994 movie, “Clear and Present Danger,” provides some very practical advice on how to handle a situation when it has already gone sideways. Early in the film, Harrison Ford’s character, Jack Ryan, sits in the Oval Office with the President of the United States and his advisors after they’ve learned that the President’s close friend, Peter Hardin, and his family have been murdered under suspicious circumstances by members of the Cali drug cartel.

The President’s advisors suggest that if the news became public, they could defuse it by downplaying the President’s association with Hardin. Ryan suggests the opposite – if the President were to be asked if he and Hardin were good friends, he should answer: “If they say you were close friends, say ‘no, you were lifelong friends.’ Don’t give them anywhere to go. There’s no sense defusing a bomb after it’s already gone off.”

While pragmatic and simple, it’s also the right thing to do.

Your air show may face a crisis at one time or another. It could be a crash, a structural collapse, allegations of wrongdoing, a natural disaster, or any number of potential hazards that could cause irreparable damage to your show’s reputation and standing with the public. A crisis is often unavoidable and you may not even be at fault. No matter what the circumstances, it can be crippling – but doesn’t have to be. Good public relations preparation represents the key to managing communications while dealing with and recovering from a disaster. But you don’t have a crisis management plan? Why not?

The first aspect of good communications during a crisis happens before the crisis occurs. It is all in the planning.

A few years back, I was hired by one of those ubiquitous billion-dollar Department of Defense contractors to establish and run their corporate public relations function. One day early into my tenure I was talking to a senior executive and was asked, “So how do you think we should structure our crisis communications function?” Being young and a little inexperienced at that level I wanted to respond, “Well, don’t mess up.” But rather, I was taken aback that such a concept was even on the company’s radar. To me, that question was a great sign. Very few companies realize the best way not to need a crisis communications program is by being proactive in related areas. Simply, seeing as how this particular company built things that could both save or take lives, a comprehensive, well-run communications program was the best strategy they could have.

A well-planned communications program creates influence and banks goodwill throughout the year, so when your air show experiences the bump in the road, you’re in a position to educate and inform while not being raked across the coals by the local or national media, bloggers with agendas or even the people in your town during casual conversation. The point being, transparency and respect for your audiences, combined with an assertive communications policy, pay huge dividends for those times when you’re going to be under the gun.

But let’s be realistic here; a crisis will happen and what will you do then? One thing you will have to do is keep open the channels of communication. This does not mean you need to, or will be able to, answer every question when it’s asked, but you will be buying yourself some breathing room and a chance to more successfully defuse the situation. If you hide in the bunker, however, you will get bombed.

To get the media’s perspective, ICAS reached out to Stephanie Stricklen, an 18-year news reporting veteran and news anchor at KGW, the NBC affiliate in Portland, Oregon. In nearly two decades in the business, she’s seen it all.

“You can expect a constant stream of phone calls, texts, air show office visits and even the occasional door knock at a home address if the crisis is big enough,” said Stricklen.

“And it will repeat all over again as shifts change and each news cycle comes into play,” Stricklen added. “The three main cycles are the morning show which typically starts with live shots as early as 4 or 4:30 a.m., the main newscasts in the early evening, and the night shows at 10 and 11 p.m. The bottom line is in a crisis news works 24-hours a day. Your best strategy is to conclude every written press release or on-camera press conference with a clear update on when you intend to release your next update. That will help slow, but not stop, the barrage of inquiries for new information.”

Having accepted the fact that disasters can happen, let’s focus on how you’re going to manage the communications process.

First, you already have the infrastructure in place and may not realize it. Your crisis communications plan should sit under the broader emergency management plan every air show needs in order to operate. You simply need to add a few basic elements to get started.

The Spokesperson

If a mishap occurs, who will do the talking? Is it the show director, an airport executive, the board chairman, or would it depend on the type of crisis? In any case, only one person should address the media.

Work out a few options for spokespeople depending on the situation and ensure you have a backup available in case your identified spokesperson is unavailable when members of the media need to be briefed.

Your list, however, should carry some criterion. Will this person display confidence? Can they handle intense questioning under pressure? Can they stay on message? If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, consider if they should be on the list at all or if some training and coaching could help them. Ensure that your identified spokespeople have been media trained and you have had practice runs where you lob awkward or aggressive questions at them under pressure to see how they react. Record it on your smartphone and have them watch their response.

An Accurate and Up-To-Date Media Contact Database

If something goes wrong, the media will certainly find you, but that’s not part of the proactive strategy you’ve worked hard to put in place. So, are your media contacts up-to-date? Have you done some pre-show outreach throughout the year to build relationships with reporters in your market, large or small? The last thing you need is to be running around trying to find contact details for key media outlets.

You need a simple, current database or spreadsheet so you can quickly send out media alerts and news releases to apprise them of updates or news conference details.

“Ideally this spreadsheet will include not only the main catch-all email for each station or news outlet (newstips@XYZ.com), but also several email addresses for individual reporters, assignment desk managers and producers,” said Stricklen. “Taking the time to make a phone call to each outlet will put you on a first name basis with someone in each shop – valuable currency when you have limited time to get your message out in a crisis. Don’t neglect the online side of news gathering. Add a contact for the person overseeing web publishing. In this instance a catch-all email is okay (webteam@XYZ.com) as those emails tend to ping fewer people.”

When Employees and Volunteers Are Approached By the Media

Do employees and volunteers direct media calls to the spokesperson or the on-site public relations support person? They should.

Ensure it is clear that no one is to speak to the media unless you authorized it ahead of time, particularly during a crisis. Consistent messaging is key and the last thing your air show needs is the chatty guy parking cars spilling “the inside scoop” to a friendly journalist while mayhem is unfolding inside the gates.

“They will do this anyway and trying to stop it is akin to putting a finger in a leaking dike,” Stricklen said. “But if your crisis communication plan is robust, and you’ve done your legwork in advance, every tidbit or scoop passed along will readily come to you first for verification, because the reporters know you are responsive and as forthcoming as possible. As always, it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t answer that at this point.’”

Remind employees and volunteers regularly of media protocols to direct any media enquiries to the on-site PR person or spokesperson and explain that the policy protects both them and the air show organization.

Pre-drafted Messages

It is wise to issue media alerts advising the media, a) what has happened in your words instead of theirs, and, b) when they can expect a news conference or official statement. Draft a few options that can be quickly amended and sent out rapidly. Templates should always be updated, depending on the situation, but having a rough draft is a good start. A simple Google News search for Air Show Crash sorted by date for the past year returns over 10,000,000 results – do you think all of these reports are accurate? If the fast-reaction initial statement comes from you, the air show, then you have a better chance of accurate information disseminating throughout social media and news websites.

Take social media into serious consideration and draft holding statements for social media channels that are appropriate for the respective channel – for example, how can you word a holding statement in less than 140 characters? You likely have different audiences for Facebook and Twitter. What works on one will not work on the other. A reporter following your show on Twitter will not take the time to click the link to your Facebook post when time is of the essence.

“If you are using social media tools (e.g. Hootsuite, CrowdBooster, Sprout) to cross populate content or pre-schedule posts, make sure someone is in charge of halting that the moment a crisis arises,” Stricklen said. “Acknowledge what happened on your social media channels and ask that people give you a moment to gather information. Remember, in these forums you’re not just communicating to journalists, but your eye witnesses, ticket holders, and anyone else who is now hearing about what happened.”

Environmental Scanning

Media monitoring, Google alerts, and social media management during an emergency are all good ways of monitoring whether your message is sticking or needs fine-tuning.

Is there a message or image that is gaining negative traction on social media? Yes, it may just be a few agitators on Twitter – at the moment – but does it have the potential to evolve into something bigger if not contained? Is a crisis that is currently impacting your show beginning to spiral toward the broader air show industry? If so, should ICAS be involved? Remain on top of what is happening. It may help to identify the crisis’ expansion early to adjust, or be more aggressive with, the message.

What Has Worked and What Hasn’t Worked

Did your air show organizer friend in another state face a crisis in the past but respond really well on social media or hold a great press conference? Yes? No? There may be lessons in their response language, tone, media response turnarounds or chosen channels that are relevant for your show, too. Think about why it worked or why it didn’t and what you may be able to adapt from their strategies to your own plan.

Those are just a few things to consider when planning ahead. The past few months have seen many American and global companies dealing with a variety of crises, a number occurring due to uncontrollable factors and some self-inflicted due to negligence or lack of preparedness. Some will go on; others will have to close their doors forever. From an air show industry perspective, it’s safe to assume we prefer the former over the latter.

From the standpoint of the air show environment, it’s easy to see why the industry, for a number of reasons, has its public relations work cut out for it. We’re contending with media that is hungry for a good story and can break the news of an event within minutes of receiving the facts, or even incomplete information. There is the ever-present threat posed by the inherent danger of the air show business, shortcuts in safety planning, the unpredictability of crisis events, and the vast amount of social media channels available to a public happy to use any platform at a moment’s notice.

Other contributing factors include air show organizations that respond slowly to an incident, get caught off-guard, or simply prepare poorly. Response speeds, ongoing preparation, and situation readiness exercises are significant contributors to an air show surviving a critical event. You probably practice your emergency response plan; now add communications to the exercise.

Accidents & Incidents: To Most People, There Is No Difference

Many in the air show business have come from, or are still working in, the commercial airline industry. Airlines are very serious when it comes to definitions. Not only because of legal concerns but also because different levels of severity involve a different set of protocols and crisis communications procedures when it comes to handling. For example, in the airline industry an aircraft accident (e.g. crashes, crash landings, disappearances) is quite different from an aircraft incident (e.g. emergency landings, bird strikes, skidding off runway).

Media and the general public, however, do not distinguish as clearly when reporting or engaging with stories about an aircraft accident or incident. Any information or news that concerns safety interests the public, and therefore, the media.

Given this context, air shows are especially vulnerable to becoming fodder for media stories and topics of general discussion, for two reasons: 1) A life or lives are at stake whenever an aircraft takes off, is flying, or lands; and 2) Today, any fault or lapse in judgement or close call or crash can be picked up very quickly by any bystander and shared with a large audience online.

Once enough interest is generated, media will quickly jump at breaking the story to an even bigger audience. Suddenly, your air show incident just went from a local story to being picked up by the networks.

Between 2010 and 2015, there have been several airline accidents and incidents where social media played a big role in breaking or fueling the stories, often to the dismay of the airlines involved. Most of the time, the concerned airlines have been tagged in the online conversations from the very start. However, they often failed to establish an active presence in verifying or directing the information flow.

Bearing that in mind, you are now more aware of the contingencies for which air shows must prepare. You can win the post-crisis information war if you acknowledge as quickly as you can that you know something has gone wrong and establish official channels/pages where people can regularly find updated information. Quickly get hold of accurate information and share it transparently, without “corporate speak” or “legalese.” Keep an eye out for rumors and misinformation and squash them sooner rather than later. Follow-up is critical. A single, quick statement within two minutes is useless unless you follow up regularly with accurate updates.

After all, there’s no sense defusing a bomb after it’s already gone off.

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Matt Warnock
Matt Warnock is the former Director of Marketing, Communications and Digital Media for the International Council of Air Shows.