Background: US Airways flight 1549 took off on Jan 15, 2009, from New York’s La Guardia Airport and during its climb ran into a flock of Canada geese and sucked an undetermined number of them into its engines, which shut down. The pilot made an emergency landing in the Hudson River, an almost miraculous ditching. The plane stayed afloat long enough for all 150 passengers and five crew members to be rescued. No one died and only five people were seriously injured.
Almost immediately, in relative terms, several of the major questions that arise from such accidents were answered: The crash was caused by bird strikes into the engines. All passengers survived. All were accounted for.
And, where usually one of the first questions and areas of speculation in the media is about whether and how badly the pilot screwed up, Capt. Sullenberger was being hailed as a hero almost from the beginning for the incredible landing on the river.
Problem: The main problem the US Airways team faced at the beginning was time and the potential for panic. From the beginning they were caught flatfooted: The company had a new CEO (only about seven months into the job); a newly rewritten and drastically shortened crisis communications plan with only one “tabletop” drill to try it out; planned communications facilities were not yet in place; and, perhaps worst of all, they learned about the crash through the media.
From the first moments, therefore, they had to play catch-up to find out what had happened, where the passengers were and what their condition was, and get accurate information out to the public, most of which only they could provide.
Situation analysis: The cause of the crash – an unavoidable collision with a flock of large, heavy birds – was known right from the beginning. In every airline crash, whether there’s loss of life or not, the first questions and speculation from the media concern what happened and why. It was apparent early on that the plane had probably escaped major disaster – no lives were lost. Apparent, but not confirmed. It would take a while to find out about the number and severity of injuries, locate the passengers and match them to the passenger list. That is a big job, but not nearly as dangerous as having to try to find out while trying desperately to come up with answers about why a lot of people have been killed in one of your planes.
So almost immediately, the crisis faced by US Airways became one of media and customer relations. The job became informing and comforting the families and getting accurate information to the media.
Strategies: The company’s goal was to issue its first press release as soon as possible. The goal was 30 minutes, and they made it in 45. That release was not very informative. The main news in it was that an accident had happened, which was something everybody else in the world had known for 45 minutes already. The other two-thirds of the news release was expressing sympathy and concern and, the really important information, where family members could call to find out about their loved ones.
One of the immediate steps US Airways took was a major effort to control the message: They bought keyword terms on the Internet to help control search results so that inquiries would be directed to their webpage.
The other steps they took were in customer relations: A “care team” dispatched to New York to distribute cell phones, food, shelter and clothing to passengers and to Charlotte N.C., the plane’s destination, to provide support for family members; a special toll-free phone number was set up so that families could call for information; later letters from the CEO to passengers told them how to recover their personal belongings from the plane and included two checks, one for $5,000 to cover immediate expenses and another to reimburse them for the airfare for Flight 1549.
The company also engaged in extensive internal relations efforts, such as news conferences and other events to thank employees and praise them for their efforts.
Consequences: The results were all in the company’s favor, apparently. The pilot has been hail as a hero ever since. The company got almost no negative press. Passengers and family members have praised the airline and its employees.
Comments: This seems to be a different case from the Exxon and Haagen-Dazs cases. In the Exxon Valdez crisis, the company’s reaction was to minimize the problem and then to try to pass responsibility off to someone else and, finally, to do the minimum effort necessary to escape with minimum possible damage to the corporate pocketbook. In the Haagen-Dazs campaign, the company used an opportunity for a public service as a marketing tool. Increased market share was the goal. The honeybees were the tool.
I am one of the last people in the world to go overboard in attributing altruistic motives or nobility of character to corporations. As a matter of fact, I am one of the last people anywhere at any time to give the benefit of any doubt at all to corporations. So even now, when I’m preparing to praise US Airways, I have to issue a caveat: The opinion I am about to express is based solely on the information presented in Fearn-Banks, and maybe she doesn’t have the whole story, and a large part of her information comes from US Airways, and maybe there’s a lot of things they aren’t telling us.
However, their customers seem to believe the company did right by them. That says a lot, and the actions they took seemed to come out of a corporate philosophy of doing the right thing. Their first objectives were to get accurate information and disseminate it as rapidly as possible and set up a system to take care of their passengers and their passengers’ families, even months later in the, necessarily expensive, effort to recover and return personal property that had to be left on the plane.
I’m sure that, in the back of their minds, and unstated in their public statements and comments, was the idea that in behaving this way they would minimize the damage from potential lawsuits. That does not detract from their actions, in my opinion. Lawsuits against public carriers as a result of crashes are commonplace. Only fools would not acknowledge that.
In that, as it often is in so many other areas of life, the best defense is doing the right thing. Even if it is a conscious defensive strategy rather than the consequence of character, if the right thing gets done, the people who count come out as winners.
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