CLIENT PROFILE: The NTSB takes Flight 800 lessons to heart - Many PR pros consider themselves crisis experts, but a stock’s plunge is child’s play compared to a 747’s. The public affairs staff at the National Transportation Safety

On the evening of July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 soared above the coast of Long Island. Seconds later it was gone, exploded in mid-air.

On the evening of July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 soared above the coast of Long Island. Seconds later it was gone, exploded in mid-air.

On the evening of July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 soared above the

coast of Long Island. Seconds later it was gone, exploded in


Over 200 lives were lost that day, and the shock reverberated among both

family members and the nation as a whole. Two days after the accident

The New York Times ran a headline claiming that the ’likeliest cause’ of

the crash was an explosive device. The FBI by then had over 100

investigators swarming all over the case. But National Transportation

Safety Board (NTSB) vice chairman Robert Francis emphasized that ’there

is no evidence at this point that this is not an accident,’ and he was

proven right when the FBI came to the conclusion that evidence was

lacking for a criminal investigation.

The unwritten law of disaster communications holds that when a train

crashes over an embankment or a plane plunges into the sea, the profile

of the NTSB rises. The same holds true in cases of small plane wrecks,

bus crashes and even boating mishaps. For the NTSB’s mission is to

investigate transportation accidents, determine their causes and then

issue recommendations on how to prevent similar mishaps.

The news media might want quick answers as to why accidents occur, but

the NTSB approaches its cases like Lieutenant Columbo: it is plodding,

it is methodical and it takes its sweet time, never openly admitting its

suspicions until it is absolutely clear where guilt lies. Maintaining

objectivity is difficult enough, but even more so when presented with

the demands of the scoop-driven news media. Once the NTSB hits the

accident scene, the media can be sure that it will get the facts - and

nothing but - from the board’s investigators.

’It’s one of the toughest communications challenges for any

organization,’ says APCO SVP Kent Jarrell, who covered major air crashes

like the January 1982 Air Florida crash in Washington, DC and the TWA

Flight 800 disaster for DC’s WUSA-TV and CBS News. Similarly, Sean

Broderick, editor of the McGraw-Hill newsletter Aero Safety and

Maintenance, notes that the board’s message - ’Wait until all the facts

are in and we’ve analyzed them with people in the industry’ - is one

that many people do not like to hear in the search for quick


The Flight 800 crash provided the impetus for the cash-strapped NTSB to

implement much-needed changes in how it handled communications,

according to Jamie Finch, the political appointee who has been directing

the NTSB’s offices of government, public and family affairs and the

internal communications center for the last three years.

The aftershocks of Flight 800

Sitting in Finch’s office on a sunny day in May along with Ted

Lopatkiewicz, a civil servant and deputy director of public affairs, the

two detail how the NTSB is striving to reinvent itself to be more media

savvy. TWA Flight 800 was ’the breaking point for many changes,’ Finch


Their boss, chairman Jim Hall, noted in a recent speech that the

deadliest air crash in US history was the May 1979 crash of American

Airlines Flight 191 in Chicago, which killed 273 people. There were only

a handful of TV cameras present and about 15 reporters. ’Today,’ said

Hall, ’you can multiply that by 10.’ But Lopatkiewicz stresses that

’it’s not just a matter of the number of cameras but the saturation

coverage that accompanies it.’

Until recently, each week a NTSB public affairs officer was on call as a

member of the ’Go-Team’ that included an NTSB board member and technical

experts. Usually, by the time the Go-Team arrived, the press was already

at the scene.

The first briefing would usually be the day after a crash and would

detail how the investigation would be conducted. In the case of TWA

Flight 800, that meant that there was only one person available to deal

with the New York and national media corps for much of the on-site

investigation, so only one-third of the media’s calls during the first

days of the investigation were answered.

The ensuing chaos was not surprising. In October 1996 The Washington

Post reported, ’With much information not being announced at news

briefings, the board’s tiny public relations staff was stretched too

thin to plug bad leaks and coordinate with other agencies’ public

relations personnel.

The result was often confusion and suspicion that only served to

complicate the investigation.’

Having learned its lesson, the NTSB has doubled its contingent of public

affairs officers over the last five years, from three to six. When

Alaska Air Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific earlier this year, four

NTSB public affairs officers were placed on-site.

Finch contends that in the new media environment, the board’s voice has

been at risk of getting overwhelmed. ’There were plenty of accidents

where so-called aviation experts were already on TV giving probable

cause of accidents where the information was erroneous about the cause

of the accident or aviation in general,’ he says. ’We saw a need to get

out there in front and not let someone else deliver the message.’

Charting a new course

Now, within hours of an accident, the NTSB will hold the first press

conference in Washington. In addition to the on-site evening news

briefing held when investigators return from the field, a midday

briefing has been added (reportedly to the chagrin of some agency

bureaucrats) to give the TV news media a hook for their early evening

broadcasts and to better meet print deadlines.

But the media is not the only audience the NTSB public affairs staff

deals with. Another critical function that Finch oversees is family

affairs, which Hall added to the NTSB’s oversight after a US Air crash

in September 1994. Family members of victims have a need to find out

what happened, which can make them an understandable source for rumors

and hearsay. Soon after the TWA crash, legislation passed requiring

airlines to have family assistance plans in place and the NTSB to serve

as the official federal liaison with families and other groups like

coroners, medical examiners and funeral directors.

The NTSB strives for perfection, but sometimes falls short. Former NTSB

managing director Peter Goelz, now an SVP at APCO, admitted that like

any other agency, the NTSB can only release information after it has

been verified. Leaks often come from the ’party’ contributors to an

investigation and even from NTSB officials.

Goelz thinks that the NTSB will need to be even more forthcoming in its

release of information while still striving to maintain its emphasis on

the facts: ’Even though it’s moved pretty dramatically, the board’s got

to keep moving.’


PR chief: Jamie Finch, director, Office of Government, Public and Family


Deputy directors: Betty Scott, government affairs; Ted Lopatkiewicz,

public affairs; Sharon Bryson, internal affairs; Alan Pollock,

communications center Staff: approximately 20 Fiscal 2000 budget:

approximately dollars 2.5 million.

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