Arguably the carrier most affected by the September 11 attacks,
American. Airlines has implemented major communications plans on every
level. Sherri Deatherage Green and Claire Murphy look at the airline's
American Airlines ramped up a newly revised crisis communications plan
in late summer. Those charged with imagining worst-case scenarios laid
out contingencies for plane crashes and 1978-style hijackings. They
never dreamed of terrorists turning two aircrafts into weapons of mass
destruction, of coordinating disaster communication with another airline
in the same predicament, or of working in the shadows of the FBI.
"This was not going to be a crisis-as-usual situation for us," says
Timothy Doke, VP corporate communications for Texas-based American
Airlines. Driving down a freeway September 11, Doke learned American
Flight 11 had crashed into the World Trade Center. By the time he
reached AMR's crisis command center in Fort Worth, he found out the
second tower had met the same fate.
Word of Flight 77's dive into the Pentagon soon followed.
A whole new strategy
"In a very odd way, that to me changed the whole dynamic of what we were
dealing with," says Doke. "Strictly from a PR standpoint, it had a bit
of a calming effect. It was apparent to me that this was something that
could not possibly be the fault of American Airlines."
American abandoned its freshly minted crisis communications plan almost
immediately, not because putting the CEO out isn't the best plan of
action in a crisis, but because the FBI rushed to American's command
center and made it clear who was in charge. American issued its first
press release within a few hours of the attacks, referring all questions
to the FBI.
In any other crisis, it would have responded much sooner.
Even without the risk of compromising a criminal investigation, Doke
doesn't think turning CEO Don Carty into a spokesman for the tragedy
would have been appropriate. "It became increasingly obvious to us that
the CEO for this crisis wasn't Don Carty, or Jim Goodwin (former CEO) of
United," Doke says. "The CEO in this instance was George W. Bush."
Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consulting firm in
Colorado, thinks American did the right thing. "We didn't know what the
situation was," he observes. "In an act of war, American's corporate
objective takes a back seat to America's objective."
American couldn't say much, but its communications office remained
staffed 24 hours a day for more than two weeks. "The toughest thing is
the first day when everybody comes in and wants to jump immediately into
the crisis," Doke says. "You have to tell a third of them to go home and
get some sleep."
Agencies spring into action
Doke immediately called Ken Luce, president of Weber Shandwick
Worldwide's Southwest US office. The agency sent more than 20 people to
American's headquarters and to airports around the US. Unable to get
around by public transport that day, two of WSW's New York employees
hitchhiked to La Guardia, Luce says.
"It seemed like every media call raised a new issue," Doke recalls.
While American couldn't answer many questions, spokespeople subtly
steered reporters away from false rumors and leaked information.
Employees from WSW and American's other agency, Burson-Marsteller,
served as the firm's eyes and ears in the airports its staff couldn't
reach while planes were grounded.
American's attention turned inward to employee communication. Staff
bulletins became an important means of communicating to the outside
world as well.
The airline took the unusual step of putting such messages on its public
website, Doke says. These included transcripts of "hotline" voice-mail
messages from Carty. The CEO made several special recordings in the days
after September 11 to reassure staff. Management received an average of
seven e-mails a day in the first few days to keep them updated.
By September 28, the PR staff, like every other department in the
cash-strapped airline, had to do more with less. Five of the 20,000
employees laid off by the airline worked in PR, reducing headcount to
about 40, including 10 people who work in the company museum. Doke
reorganized remaining staff, and assigned each employee responsibilities
on both a subject-matter and geographic basis.
Tighter budgets also mean less outside help. "We've had to cut our
professional fee budget substantially," Doke says. That has cut into the
fees paid to both WSW and Burson.
Necessary cuts start at the top
Once American was able to talk more freely, messages focused on finance
and security. Airlines depended heavily on the Air Transport Association
to communicate with Congress about the need for emergency financial
Burson, which does public affairs work for American, supported lobbyists
on Capitol Hill. Carty chairs the association board but deferred to
other CEOs, like Delta Airline's Leo Mullin, to speak on the industry's
Again, Carty's strongest messages were directed to employees while also
addressing the broader public. A September 28 letter explained the
decision to cut staff. Titled An Airline in Crisis, the no-nonsense
document made it clear that belt-tightening is crucial to the airline's
survival. "The losses we face are truly staggering," Carty wrote, going
on to explain how the airline loses money each time a half-full plane
takes off. "Right now it is survival, not profitability that is our core
challenge." Carty took an equally frank approach in an October 24 letter
announcing the company's worst financial quarter ever, describing steps
taken to keep planes in the sky and appealing to employees for help.
The airline's CEO appeared as the industry's elder statesman, says Dr.
Adam Pilarski, SVP of aviation consulting firm AVITAS. Perhaps Carty's
most well-received gesture was fore-going pay for the rest of the
"I don't know if the public paid much attention at all, but I know the
press did," recalls Washington Post reporter Frank Swoboda. Other
American officers and the CEOs of competing airlines, such as
Continental followed suit. The company also set up a website through
which staff could donate pay to their employer, a successful program
that will save millions, says Doke.
On the safety front, American issued press releases about their plans to
fit iron bars to the insides of cockpit doors. But such issues lie
largely within the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration, and
many safety measures can't be discussed for security reasons.
One pressing need now is to "get people back into the air," says Marty
Heires, American's field media relations director. In addition to
offering low fares and double frequent-flyer miles, the airline is again
using internal communication to boost bookings. It e-mailed employees
encouraging them to offer 5% discounts to friends and family. American
also recently launched a campaign called "Proud to be American" to boost
the morale of workers stressed by increased security requirements, long
hours, and the loss of coworkers to layoffs and tragedy.
As for that new crisis communications plan, Doke says he doesn't know if
it needs wholesale changes or just an addition on terrorist attacks.
"This event is such an anomaly as it relates to crisis communications
planning," Doke says. "I think the bed-rock principles will be the same
- be available, be open and honest, and be as forthcoming as we can
VP, corporate communications: Timothy Doke
Managing director, strategic communications: Gus Whitcomb
Managing director, corporate media relations: Al Becker
Managing director, field media relations: Marty Heires
Managing director, reputation management: Andrea Rader
Manager, communications planning: Tim Kincaid Administrator, AA
Foundation: Kathy Andersen
Managing director, investor relations: Michael Thomas
External agencies: Weber Shandwick Worldwide for marketing and crisis
communication, Burson-Marsteller for public affairs