ANALYSIS: Client Profile - American Airlines braces for mostturbulent journey

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

disaster response.

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

possibly be."


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

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in