For United Airlines, a Crisis Without Precedent
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Holmes Report

For United Airlines, a Crisis Without Precedent

The PR department at United Airlines dealt with two hijackings that turned into fatal crashes, the grounding of its entire fleet, a major policy discussion over its financial losses, and the biggest round of layoffs in the company’s history.

Paul Holmes

John Kiker was pulling into the parking lot at United Airlines’ suburban Chicago headquarters on the morning of September 11 when his pager began vibrating and he received the message that he should make his way to the company’s crisis center, a small auditorium, with six large television screens and a bank of computers.
“It has always been there for any crisis, from a crash to a major decline in the stock price,” says Kiker, the company’s vice president of worldwide communications. The last time he was there for a crisis that involved loss of life was in November of 1996, when a United Express commuter plane collided with a private aircraft on the runway at Baldwin Municipal Airport in Illinois. Fourteen people were killed, but nothing about that incident could prepare Kiker for what he saw on the television screens when he walked into the crisis center on that Tuesday morning three weeks ago.
“At that point all we knew was that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and we had lost contact with two of our planes,” says Kiker. “We were watching the television screens and we saw a plane hit the other tower.” That was at three minutes after 9am, east coast time. A few minutes later, the company learned that a plane had crashed outside Pittsburgh. Not long after that, reports came in of yet another crash, this one at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Kiker has responsibility for public relations, employee communications, corporate philanthropy and corporate advertising, and a staff of about 75 people. When the crisis plan is triggered, about 40 or 50 of those people spring into action. “Some of them are handling media call backs,” says Kiker. “We set up a conference room with just telephones and they answer what questions they can, and they bring issues to me or my deputies if they can’t answer them.
“Another part of the team is canceling advertising, which we did. Our employee communications people are split into two groups. One group helps with the media, while the other group handles employee communications. And one of our media relations people is dispatched to each crash site to take care of the media at the site.”
Kiker also called on United’s public relations agency, Fleishman-Hillard, for assistance. United works primarily with the firm’s New York office, but F-H dispatched personnel from its Chicago office, who were joined by representatives of employee communications specialist Matha MacDonald. “They were there in case things go out of hand and we needed their perspective, but for the most part they were focused on monitoring,” says Kiker.
“They helped us keep our quick response mechanism working. If there was misinformation out there, they monitored what was being said and made sure we corrected it. In one case we had a reporter say something wrong about the payments we made to the families of the victims, and within an hour or two one of her colleagues was correcting it on air.”
With events unfolding at a breathtaking pace, there was confusion. American Airlines had also lost contact with two of its flights, and feared that both of the World Trade Center strikes involved its missing aircraft. Without official identification of the second World Trade Center plane, United decided to put out a release confirming what it knew. At 11.17am, the company confirmed that one of the company’s planes had crashed Pittsburgh.
“United Flight 93, a Boeing 757 aircraft, is the flight number involved. The flight originated in Newark and was bound for San Francisco.” The company also expressed its concern about a second flight, a Boeing 767, bound from Boston to Los Angeles. It emphasized that it was cooperating with the relevant authorities, including the FBI, and that it had grounded all other flights, in line with a directive from the Federal Aviation Authority.
The release quoted CEO James Goodwin: “The thoughts of everyone at United are with the passengers and crew of these flights. Our prayers are also with everyone on the ground who may have been involved in today's tragic events.”
Even as that first press release hit the wires, United was communicating the same message to its own people. The airline had about 100,000 employees, including 30,000 flight attendants and pilots with no office. The company put out a voice mail message from Goodwin—and provided an 800 number for non-office employees to call in—and worked with the unions to reach other workers. The company also used system-wide e-mail to reach employees.
The second press releases went out just before midday on Tuesday and confirmed what United had suspected, that the second plane to crash into the World Trade Center was its flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles. By that time it was clear that this was no ordinary crisis, if such a thing exists.
“In conventional circumstances, we were as well prepared to communicate in a crisis as any other company in America,” says Kiker. “We have to be ready to deal with a plane crash at any time, so we have a plan in place, and we do crisis drills three or four times a year, usually without warning. Typically, I get a call informing me that there is a crisis test, and outlining what just happened.”
The airline considers numerous scenarios—two planes crashing into one another, planes crashing into buildings, hijackings, two places crashing in separate incidents within a few hours of one another—but had never planned for a scenario quite like the one that unfolded that fateful Tuesday morning.
Says Kiker, “I think a lot of the rules of crisis management were the same. Once you have the basic messages and procedures, they are the same whatever the specifics of the incident. But this one was definitely not in the book. We had never considered that our planes would be used as part of a terrorist attack. And we had not planned for a situation in which we would have to bring down the entire network.”
The basic messages are what Kiker calls the three Cs: compassion, cooperation, and contact.
“Compassion is the first priority,” he says. “We have to show our compassion for the families of the victims. We also have to make the point that we are cooperating with the relevant authorities, which in most cases means the FAA, but in this case included the FBI. The FBI was in our crisis center from the second hour, and we had to clear everything we said, all our press releases, through the FBI before they went out.
“Finally, we have to make sure that people know how to contact us, and where they can go for the latest information.” That includes the company’s website, which in the current crisis became a prime source of information for the media and others.
One thing that would ordinarily be a priority was getting the company’s CEO out in front of the media immediately, but in this case that was not practical. The last thing the company wanted to do was have its own executives out there in front of the president or the Department of Transportation. “It didn’t take long for us to realize this was not about us,” says Kiker. “It was much bigger than that. In this case, we made a conscious effort not to put him in front of the public.”
That’s not to say Goodwin didn’t have a major role. He was very visible in communication with the company’s employees, with the victims’ families—he received a big round of applause when he turned up for a memorial service in Pennsylvania—and later in Washington, as United joined other airlines in lobbying for relief.
The company also mobilized its leadership team early on, with early morning meetings of the company’s five most senior officers—with Kiker in attendance—to discuss the situation.
“Another of the good things we did was centralize the communications from the crisis center,” says Kiker. “That way we have media, legal, human resources, special assistance, and operations in the same room. In the early stages of the crisis, it’s one judgment call after another, and it helps to have all those perspectives represented.”
It was also important to make sure that trained communicators handled all media contact. In crisis situations, untrained employees can often fuel speculation about the cause of an incident, make inaccurate statements that may later be reported as fact, and even leave the company open to legal liability. It was also important for the company to protect its employees—and even more important, passengers and families—from the media.
But managing the crisis soon began to take its toll.
“Early on we were just profoundly stricken,” says Kiker. “Those images were devastating, and that was our plane they kept showing. To see our plane over and over and over again going into the building, that was very disturbing. It was a hard psychological blow to stomach. That was the hardest thing on the first day.”
While the management team sought to come to terms with the horrific images, United was already working to help the families of the victims. The company helped make travel arrangements for family members who wanted to visit the site of the crash or memorial services; helped set up memorial services and funerals; provided access to counseling through the American Red Cross; and hand-delivered $25,000 cash advances to each family to meet immediate expenses.
At the same time, there were “a ton of questions” to be answered, on a wide range of issues: airport security, open cockpit doors, and the actions of the heroes on board flight 93. “In a lot of cases we couldn’t respond because we didn’t know what happened,” says Kiker. “In some cases, we still don’t know.”
In answering those questions, Kiker was in constant contact with his counterpart at American Airlines, Tim Doke, who was answering almost identical questions at the same time. The two wanted to be sure their messages on common issues were coordinated.
Those common issues soon expanded beyond security concerns—Kiker says he fielded lots of questions, but that for the most part they were not accusatory or irate—to include financial questions. “Those questions started to come up as soon as they grounded the fleet,” says Kiker. “It was obvious to us that the grounding of all air travel was going to create some major financial issues and we started to plan for that immediately.”
When air travel resumed, and United found its flights taking off one-third full—“We had six people on our flight from O’Hare to La Guardia, which is our busiest route,” says Kiker—the airline had its messages ready and Goodwin was prepared to pitch his case in Washington, making four trips to the nation’s capital to explain the airlines’ situation.
The employee communications message changed around day four or five, says Kiker. “We began telling people, ‘We know this has been painful for everyone. We know a lot of people lost friends and colleagues. But we are going to feel the pain of this in different ways.’ We let them know that this was affecting the entire industry, and we were not going to be able to avoid the consequences.”
On September 19, a little more than a week after the incident, Goodwin sent a special message to all employees, laying out the situation in frank terms: “As we continue to focus our attention on assisting the families of our colleagues and the passengers who were the victims of last Tuesday’s tragic events, we must now turn our attention and our efforts to saving our company. In short, the future of our company is at risk. Our situation is as straightforward and severe as that.”
He went on to detail plans to release approximately 20,000 people, “a truly staggering number,” in Goodwin’s words.
In the space of little more than a week, the public relations department at United Airlines dealt with two hijackings that turned into fatal crashes, the grounding of its entire fleet, a major public policy discussion over its financial losses and its potential legal liability, and the biggest round of layoffs in the company’s history. All that took its toll.
“If there’s one thing we were not prepared for, it was the sheer physical and emotional exhaustion we began to feel after a few days,” says Kiker. “Most of the people on my communications team are fairly young, and probably 90 percent of them had never been through a major incident before, so I think it hit them worst. But all of our people are extremely dedicated, and we were working around the clock, and so it hit everyone.
“We found we had to force people to go home. Otherwise you become useless. You just can’t make decisions.”
Now the airline is asking itself what happens next. It has segued from crisis mode to recovery mode.
On Friday of the week after the disaster, United Airlines ran a simple ad in national newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today. The ad copy focused on the way everyone’s life changed on September 11:
“On Monday, a hose in my sink broke just when I needed to rush out the door, and I thought life was being unfair. On Monday, when you asked people how they were doing, without much thought or much contemplation, they replied ‘fine’ or ‘good.’ On Monday, the papers and the news magazines were filled with stories about the new fall TV schedule. On Monday, there were not that many people in the religious section at the bookstore…
“On Tuesday September 11, all that changed. On Tuesday September 11, different things seemed important. On Tuesday September 11, blissful naiveté was lost. Sanctity was mercilessly shaken. On Tuesday September 11, somebody tried to take America apart. On Tuesday September 11, America came together. On Tuesday September 11, strangers died for another… On Tuesday September 11, America was knocked to its knees. On Tuesday September 11, America got back up again.”
The ad went on to acknowledge the bravery and selflessness of the rescue workers, medical personnel, and citizens who responded to the tragedy, and thanked the airline’s employees for their caring and professionalism in the wake of the disaster.
“We wanted to get out there very quickly with a message of sympathy and compassion,” says Kiker. “We looked at other ads and we saw a lot of letters. We didn’t do that, because we weren’t sure they were getting noticed. The ad got a terrific response. The reaction from employees was overwhelming: we got a lot of requests for reprints. We even had reporters reading the entire ad on air.”
The ad was the first step toward getting back to normal.
“The mood is still extremely nervous,” says Kiker. “But at the same time this company has really come together, the same way America has come together. Before September 11, we were a company in argument with our unions. All that went away after the incident as everyone came together to get us through this. But if you look at what happened, and then you layer on top of that the layoffs and there’s a lot of concern. People are scared the traffic isn’t going to come back and there may be more layoffs. And we don’t have any definitive answers to that.”
As for external communications, Kiker says the company continues to work with the FAA and other airlines to shore up confidence, and says he is also taking the opportunity to reposition the United Airlines brand. “This is not a time to stop advertising or stop communicating, so we are going to be out there again pretty soon. But we have to figure out how we are going to position ourselves and what we are going to say.”
Whatever the challenges are, Kiker will; have to face them with a severely reduced staff. He says he expects his current team of 75 to be reduced to about 30 after the latest round of cuts.
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