CAMPAIGNS: Website PR - Orbitz puts its site to good use for US

Client: Orbitz.com (Chicago)

PR Team: Burson-Marsteller (New York)

Campaign: Emergency assistance response

Time Frame: September 11, 2001-present

Budget: Normal operating expenses



On September 11, just about everyone wanted answers that the airline

industry - and CNN - was unable to provide quickly. Surprisingly,

however, the most up-to-date information on the status of air travel

turned out to be the web - specifically on the airline-owned ticket

seller Orbitz.com.



Strategy



With a command center in downtown Chicago that has the same equipment

found in any air-traffic control tower, Orbitz is able to see in real

time what's happening in the air and on the ground, all over the

country.



But people were just beginning to arrive at Orbitz's office when word

came through that four airliners bound for the West Coast had been

hijacked and intentionally crashed.



"The first thing we asked was, 'How can we help people cope with this?'"

says Orbitz VP of corporate communications Carol Jouzaitis. "We sent an

alert to all our customers who'd opted in for more information, and then

also posted information on the site." But little could be done before

the Orbitz staff was evacuated, as the company is located across the

street from the Sears Tower (deemed a possible target of other

terrorists).



Seeing that in all likelihood the staff would be unable to return to

work that day, they headed home with their laptops. And through a series

of conference calls, it was decided that marketing would be set aside

for the sake of providing good information.



Tactics



"We had to think about how to revamp the site," says Jouzaitis. "So we

very quickly shifted the focus away from retail and toward being an

information service."



But the site needed a cosmetic overhaul. "You have to be very careful

about what kind of communications you are issuing," says Peter Himler,

MD of Burson-Marsteller's US corporate/financial practice. Jouzaitis

realized this right away, noting that the site's homepage "had pictures

of vacation packages. Clearly, having the sunny spots on the homepage

did not fit with the mood of the country." Any content that could be

viewed as insensitive was replaced or removed altogether.



The Orbitz site was essentially transformed into an air-travel

information resource featuring everything from ticketing and refund

possibilities, to new security measures and e-ticket procedures. And as

more information was posted, the more it became clear that Orbitz's

command center knew more about the state of air travel than the

media.



"Our air-traffic controller knew how fast things were getting going,"

says Jouzaitis. "We had him compiling information, and started

blast-faxing it twice a day to the media. We did that for about a week,

and told reporters that if the information was helpful, they could go to

the site for more."



The Burson team supplemented that work: "Our goal was to ensure that

when the news media was writing about where to go online to get

information, that Orbitz was included," says Himler.



Results



Even after the blast-faxing stopped, several outlets (including The Wall

Street Journal) requested that Orbitz continue to distribute the

information.



And along with other sites such as National Geographic Traveler linking

to Orbitz, The Washington Post called Orbitz the best resource for

travel information.



"One woman e-mailed us, and was very complimentary," Jouzaitis

recalls.



"She made a point of telling us that it was her duty as an American to

get out there flying again."



Future



As of press time, Orbitz.com was "still in the process of shifting back

to a retail focus," according to Jouzaitis. "We're very gradually

shifting back to commerce, but the whole center of the front page of our

site is still information-centered."



But the airline industry, like everyone else, realizes that things will

have to push toward normalcy, even if "normal" as a concept remains

undefined for the time being. "The New York Times Travel section is

still coming out with travel features, so Orbitz has a significant

role," says Himler. "You have to have your finger on the pulse of the

media's interests, and monitor what they're writing about to determine

how you'll proceed."



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