Weathering the Storm
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Weathering the Storm

Three major crises in one year are more than any company would care to handle. Quick response was crucial, and the communications team was able to provide vital information and strategic counsel that would help return the airline to running its business while protecting a valued consumer brand name.

Paul Holmes

Three major crises in one year are more than any company would care to handle. Quick response was crucial, and the communications team was able to provide vital information and strategic counsel that would help return the airline to running its business while protecting a valued consumer brand name. Because senior management immediately realized the challenge of such public events, the communications team had a seat at the table from the beginning.
Weber Shandwick resources allowed for an immediate expansion of the headquarters team with the agency providing field support at airport sites to manage the events and on-site media. With agency support at headquarters and several crucial sites, American dealt with the challenges of the accident and turned an aggressive reputation campaign into a yearlong crusade to save a battered company. Leadership, teamwork and open communications helped American Airlines maintain its status as a safe and reliable company.
While there is no good time for a crisis, American Airlines Flight 587 going down over Queens, New York, en route to the Dominican Republic on Nov. 12, 2001 could not have been worse timing. Just two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks where two AA jets were used as weapons, and in the midst of the worst financial downturn to ever hit the industry, the airline also was completing the largest integration program in aviation having acquired the assets of TWA.
To ensure preparedness, American has a plan for all potential crises with mock situation drills conducted routinely. The 587 challenge prompted weekly brand perception research providing valuable marketing insight into the minds of AA customers, general travelers and non-fliers. Well-phrased polling questions pinpointed the concerns of targeted demographic and geographic audiences, and showed the most effective ways to communicate to them. Communications on safety and security issues were targeted where they were most needed, while others audience segments received tailored messages regarding American’s financial health and continued re-building of its business.
To quell rumors regarding the causes of the accident, American Airlines had to establish itself as a credible and reliable source of information. With terrorism speculation rampant, the company could not afford fear to further damage the fragile confidence of the traveling public. Brand reputation protection and recovery communications were paramount, as both internal and external audiences needed reassurance of the company’s health and future viability. Regional concerns also were important as the company reached out to Dominican Republic and New York ethnic communities.
The communications team realized that difficult events demanded a higher degree of interaction with media and internal audiences. Within three hours, the company issued a press release confirming the events of the incident, and consistent, high- profile outreach continued through the one-year anniversary of the accident.
It was agreed that Chairman and CEO Don Carty must become a more public figure. This was in stark contrast to the strategy after the Sept. 11 attacks when the Bush administration was in the lead communications position with Mr. Carty simply expressing his concern from the sidelines. In his new role, Mr. Carty became a focal point for the industry and established American as a source of information for the accident. At the same time, he was a reassuring voice for those eager to hear flying was safe. Extensive media training and messaging prepared him for this role, and similar training was used for key employees participating in media interviews or NTSB hearings.
Each audience was targeted with specific messaging to address their particular needs. A wide array of vehicles was used to reach the disparate and geographically diverse group of employees, customers and affected communities. Government- relations expertise was tapped to provide counsel on which messages could be publicly issued without conflicting with the NTSB investigation or the FBI’s national security concerns. Much of the messaging was forced to take place in one-on-one key media briefings instead of public statements or releases to wider media audiences.
Cultural expertise helped the company better understand issues that might arise in communicating with Dominican audiences in the New York area and the Dominican Republic. While Spanish-language communication was obvious, the many cultural and religious differences were equally important. This added degree of preparation enabled the team to avoid potential trouble spots.
Don Carty immediately conducted a news conference, standing with Mayor Guiliani and Mayor-elect Bloomberg to express the company’s condolences to the families, victims and the city of New York. This marked a shift that soon would have Mr. Carty front and center with major media and with employees at stations around the American system. His first national network broadcast appearance since Sept. 11 was on “Larry King Live” during Thanksgiving week, one of busiest travel periods of the year.
He also appeared on the top three network morning shows and CNBC’s “Marketwatch,” reassuring the public it was safe to fly and that the airline would survive. WSJ and Fortune reporters were given unprecedented access for an in-depth look at the company’s crisis response. Both publications wrote lengthy December articles highlighting American’s decisive-yet-compassionate leadership and the employees’ heroics while facing the challenges.
By carefully managing media opportunities, American gained positive coverage without “branding” itself with tragedy. The expanded communications team professionally managed a huge quantity of media requests following the incident and further built credibility maintaining its reputation for open communication. This reputation proved invaluable during the post-crisis period of strengthening the American brand.
To help restore public confidence in the safety of the airline, the team began publicizing American’s extra-precautionary initiative to begin inspection of all Airbus 300 aircraft. A public image advertising campaign also was developed. Entitled “Proud to be American,” the campaign used footage of actual employees– both to save funds and to build internal pride. Along with direct, grassroots outreach to employees across the system, this theme helped worker sentiment rebound.
Tailoring communications for different public audiences also was crucial. Targeted e-mails to AAdvantage frequent flyers were issued. The neighborhood of Belle Harbor, site of the accident, was given special attention—a Web site ( for updated news, a special e-mail contact address and contact information via a toll-free number.
Printed copies of the newsletter also were distributed to the neighborhood for anyone without computer access. As an added sensitivity to cultural issues, American purchased traditional memorial advertising in popular Hispanic media, as well as ensuring for the proper treatment of remains when transporting, and the proper respect of on-site memorials during the year-long mourning period recognized by many of the victims’ families.
Attention also was given to an employee population that had endured more than its share of bad news and losses of co-workers since September 11. Mr. Carty and his senior staff traveled throughout the system to thank team members for their support and dedication. Mr. Carty’s phone-in hotline is recorded on at least a weekly basis, providing another outlet for direct leadership and encouraging messages.
Positive results of the communications strategy success are still being seen. American remains one of the most respected and admired brands, and has maintained its marketshare and trusted status in the months following the accident.
While a final determination of what caused the 587 accident has not been reached, no public or media judgement has been reached, allowing the investigators to do their job in determining the cause. Research showed that American’s quick response and open communication helped reduce speculation about terrorist causes, and likely helped the incident quickly fade from the minds of travelers in the months that followed.
The company has returned to successfully promoting its “More Room Throughout Coach” campaign and launched an updated, which is primary public interface with the company. American has seen a steady climb in tickets booked online in 2002. The “one airline” internal theme has continued to bolster the integration of TWA’s employees, making American the world’s largest airline.
Direct, grassroots communication allowed the company to educate and reassure the workforce about economic issues while also allowing them to provide potential solution ideas. Internal campaigns centered around cost-cutting ideas submitted directly to a Carty e-mail, and in communicating stories of pride for co-workers who had acted heroically during stressful times or come up with valuable ideas that were saving jobs. More than $2 billion in costs have been saved in 2002 – much of that attributable to employee ideas.
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