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
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
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.