Client: Orbitz.com (Chicago)
PR Team: Burson-Marsteller (New York)
Campaign: Emergency assistance response
Time Frame: September 11, 2001-present
Budget: Normal operating expenses
On September 11, just about everyone wanted answers that the airline
industry - and CNN - was unable to provide quickly. Surprisingly,
however, the most up-to-date information on the status of air travel
turned out to be the web - specifically on the airline-owned ticket
With a command center in downtown Chicago that has the same equipment
found in any air-traffic control tower, Orbitz is able to see in real
time what's happening in the air and on the ground, all over the
But people were just beginning to arrive at Orbitz's office when word
came through that four airliners bound for the West Coast had been
hijacked and intentionally crashed.
"The first thing we asked was, 'How can we help people cope with this?'"
says Orbitz VP of corporate communications Carol Jouzaitis. "We sent an
alert to all our customers who'd opted in for more information, and then
also posted information on the site." But little could be done before
the Orbitz staff was evacuated, as the company is located across the
street from the Sears Tower (deemed a possible target of other
Seeing that in all likelihood the staff would be unable to return to
work that day, they headed home with their laptops. And through a series
of conference calls, it was decided that marketing would be set aside
for the sake of providing good information.
"We had to think about how to revamp the site," says Jouzaitis. "So we
very quickly shifted the focus away from retail and toward being an
But the site needed a cosmetic overhaul. "You have to be very careful
about what kind of communications you are issuing," says Peter Himler,
MD of Burson-Marsteller's US corporate/financial practice. Jouzaitis
realized this right away, noting that the site's homepage "had pictures
of vacation packages. Clearly, having the sunny spots on the homepage
did not fit with the mood of the country." Any content that could be
viewed as insensitive was replaced or removed altogether.
The Orbitz site was essentially transformed into an air-travel
information resource featuring everything from ticketing and refund
possibilities, to new security measures and e-ticket procedures. And as
more information was posted, the more it became clear that Orbitz's
command center knew more about the state of air travel than the
"Our air-traffic controller knew how fast things were getting going,"
says Jouzaitis. "We had him compiling information, and started
blast-faxing it twice a day to the media. We did that for about a week,
and told reporters that if the information was helpful, they could go to
the site for more."
The Burson team supplemented that work: "Our goal was to ensure that
when the news media was writing about where to go online to get
information, that Orbitz was included," says Himler.
Even after the blast-faxing stopped, several outlets (including The Wall
Street Journal) requested that Orbitz continue to distribute the
And along with other sites such as National Geographic Traveler linking
to Orbitz, The Washington Post called Orbitz the best resource for
"One woman e-mailed us, and was very complimentary," Jouzaitis
"She made a point of telling us that it was her duty as an American to
get out there flying again."
As of press time, Orbitz.com was "still in the process of shifting back
to a retail focus," according to Jouzaitis. "We're very gradually
shifting back to commerce, but the whole center of the front page of our
site is still information-centered."
But the airline industry, like everyone else, realizes that things will
have to push toward normalcy, even if "normal" as a concept remains
undefined for the time being. "The New York Times Travel section is
still coming out with travel features, so Orbitz has a significant
role," says Himler. "You have to have your finger on the pulse of the
media's interests, and monitor what they're writing about to determine
how you'll proceed."