CAMPAIGNS: Crisis Management - Airline's PR team tested again in NYC

Client: American Airlines

PR Team: In-house PR team, assisted by staff seconded from other

departments, plus Burson-Marsteller and Weber Shandwick Worldwide

Campaign: Crisis comms following Queens, New York, crash on 12 November

Timescale: Immediate aftermath of crash

Budget: Part of comms budget

The crash of American Airlines' Flight 587 into a New York City suburb

on 12 November could hardly have come at a worse time. Two months after

the terrorist attacks in which two AA planes were hijacked and flown

into the World Trade Center, some degree of normality was beginning to

return. The Rockaway crash brought an immediate rerun of the trauma and

placed the company into the headlines again.


In addition to the necessity of conveying AA's sympathy for bereaved

relatives, the company's two main objectives were to preserve the

reputation of the airline and to make sure that information about the

crash was accurate.

AA also wanted to be a major source of information, but was limited by

Federal rules, which prevented it from commenting in detail about the

crash investigation.

While the airline wanted to protect its reputation for airworthiness,

there was also a contradictory responsibility not to raise anxieties by

suggesting sabotage until there was firm evidence.

Strategy and Plan

The company found itself having to implement its crisis management plan

for the second time in just over two months. This originated from AA's

Dallas headquarters, but there was also a European operation run out of


In the US, a key plank of the strategy was to get a senior executive -

in this case CEO Don Carty - in front of the media as soon as


Carty gave a press conference from the Queens hotel where the victims'

families were housed. Messages were posted on AA's website in both

Spanish and English.

A crisis comms team was also sent to liaise with rescuers and


The company placed great importance on the monitoring of broadcast, web

and print media to assess the tone of the coverage and pick up on any

misinforma-tion that could be corrected in eyewitness reports, wrong

'expert' opinion or media speculation.

There was an internal comms programme, mostly though the AA intranet, to

reassure staff and help them cope with the emotional strain.

In the UK, emergency plans involved extra phones, pre-prepared emergency

statements, and press enquiry forms (already updated with what had been

learnt two months earlier).

The three-strong UK comms team implemented a back-up plan to use 30

staff who had received PR training to field phonecalls, and answer from

prepared statements.

Measurement and Evaluation

Coming so soon after 11 September there was huge media interest, but

this subsided rapidly when it became clear it was probably an


AA says there was some positive coverage in terms of reports about the

airline's overall safety record.

Early signs suggest the impact on the industry overall could have been

worse, with fewer cancellations than initially feared.


The amount of negative coverage AA received was reduced by the major

developments coming out of Afghanistan. The company probably also

benefited from a degree of media sympathy.

Overall AA's comms team seems to have risen to the challenge, led from

the front by its CEO.

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