PROFILE: Doke navigates American through turbulent skies

As head of corporate communications for American Airlines, Tim Doke has seen everything from employee strikes to terrorist attacks. Matthew Arnold finds out why he still comes to work every day.

As head of corporate communications for American Airlines, Tim Doke has seen everything from employee strikes to terrorist attacks. Matthew Arnold finds out why he still comes to work every day.

"We've got weather," American Airlines PR guru Tim Doke says casually, as he barrels down a corridor at the airline's cavernous Fort Worth headquarters. "Weather," in the industry vernacular, means bad weather, and today Doke's aside refers to a cold front to the north and a tropical storm to the south set to collide sometime tomorrow. For much of the past two years, Doke and his staff of 38 have had much more than the weather on their minds. It must seem almost quaint by comparison. "It teaches you how to handle the really big stuff," says Doke. "If you can unscramble the omelet of having a major hub shut down because of a blizzard, you can handle almost anything." Doke bounds across American's open-plan office like a politician working a Labor Day parade in an election year, gladhanding and exchanging greetings with every employee he passes. He worries about morale in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and the industry's subsequent slide into economic crisis, and says his hard-pressed staff now spends half its time on internal communications. Even as American has downsized to offset staggering losses, its communications staff has seen its workload grow exponentially. "September 11 hasn't gone away from a communications standpoint," says Doke. The initial panic as American flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center strangely eased as it became clear that the crash was part of a terrorist strike, rather than pilot or mechanical error. "That had an oddly calming effect on the staff," says Doke, "because it became clear that this was no longer an American Airlines event, but an American event." But the attacks opened up a Pandora's box for the industry, forcing a spate of drastic restructurings even as it struggled to keep up with reporting on the attacks and tending to the grieving families of employees who had perished in them. Doke has certainly earned his wings in crisis communications. In his time at American, the airline has suffered four airplane crashes, not counting 9/11, when two more American planes went down. Not to mention the several labor disputes, a couple major court battles, and countless storms. "He's got to have the toughest job in the business," says Jack Leslie, chairman of American's PR firm, Weber Shandwick Worldwide, "and nothing seems to rattle him. A lot of people in the airline business are screamers, and that's the last thing you want in crisis comms, but Tim is always very even-keeled, very at ease with himself." The Kansas City native got his first taste of PR as a student at Central Missouri State University, where he took up a part-time job with the PR office and stayed on three years, learning the ropes on everything from PR to lobbying. A term studying international law at Edinburgh University gave him an international perspective, but he soon found himself longing to abandon the cloistered world of law for the cut and thrust of politics and public affairs work. Returning to the US, Doke took up a PR post with the State of Missouri before moving to New York agency powerhouse Carl Byoir & Associates. Doke stayed with Byoir for ten years, rubbing shoulders with agency heavyweights like Dick Truitt, Sheila Tate, Muriel Fox and John Budd, along with such clients as Henry Bloch and Donald Hall. His time there schooled him for the highly political, heavily regulated airline industry, as it found him often working in-house with clients at the intersection of PR and public affairs. Doke moved to Alaska Airlines, overseeing corporate communications for eighteen months during its expansion into a regional carrier and getting a feel for the business, before returning to agency life, eventually moving to Elgin Syferd/DDB Needham in Seattle, which counted American among its clients. After several years in Seattle, Doke was tapped by then-AMR (American's parent company) chief Bob Crandall to run the airline's corporate communications program amid a veil of hushed urgency. American was about to launch its Value Pricing initiative, a dramatic overhaul of its fare structure that promised to roil pricing throughout the industry. Competitors countered with a fare war and a predatory pricing suit. American won the case, only to find itself embroiled in a flight attendants' strike weeks later. "I figured out pretty quickly that I wasn't going to get bored here," says Doke. "The environment here is almost crisis day in, day out. Virtually everything we do is public, so virtually everything moves through corporate communications, and it's wonderfully challenging, balancing all those moving parts." Doke is always on call, and though he waxes exuberant over how his office uses technology to stay on the job in the field, he longs for escape with the same breath. "The umbilical cord is unseverable," he says. He travels often with his wife, whom he married two weeks after 9/11, and friends describe him as a doting dad who looks after his two daughters, ages 10 and 11, from a previous marriage. To get away from it all, the wine and jazz aficionado pours a glass, puts an album on and curls up with a noir-ish novel. He favors the mysteries and detective fiction of James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell, whose bare-knuckled prose sometimes seems to color his language, as when he talks of "talking a reporter in off the ledge" of a bad story angle. Indeed, Doke complains that the news industry is growing more sensational, and says he sees more reporters approaching stories with antagonistic angles from which they won't budge. "They're very much focused on a story's sizzle value rather than getting out the right information," he says, singling out USA Today - the business traveler's daily - for particular scorn. Reporters nonetheless speak of Doke with grudging admiration, even affection. "He's a real pro," says USA Today's Dan Reed, a veteran airline business reporter whom Doke is careful to exempt from his criticism. "He knows how to protect his company - he walks that line. He's also a smart, funny guy, which makes dealing with him pleasant, even when our roles are adversarial." -------- Tim Doke 1976-1986 Various posts at Carl Byoir & Associates; Assistant VP, Alaska Airlines 1986-1989 SVP and deputy GM, H&K, Washington 1989-1992 VP, Elgin Syferd/DDB Needham 1992-1996 MD, corporate comms, American Airlines 1996-1998 VP, public affairs, Brinker International 1998-present VP, corporate comms, American Airlines

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in