AA's crisis comms lessons

In a crisis - be it a bridge collapse or a slew of canceled flights - people are often most scared of the unknown. What's...

In a crisis - be it a bridge collapse or a slew of canceled flights - people are often most scared of the unknown. What's happening and what's going to happen next? A PR pros' job during a crisis is not only brand damage control but also getting good, clear information out there.

During American Airlines crisis communications situation this week (it canceled 3,079 flights in four days), the company never believed its planes were unsafe.

"Our view all along is that those planes could have flown and had been flying," Roger Frizzell, American Airline’s VP of corporate communications and advertising, told PRWeek.

But he added, "That’s not really your communications message."

Although the Fort Worth-based airline stressed this fact in its press releases and other communications, it knew that what most customers wanted to know was whether or not they were getting on a plane, and if not, what was going to be done about it.

"The primary thing you've got to [do is] communicate what’s going on, apologize... you’ve got to take action… you’ve got to take care of those customers, and then you’ve got to apologize again," he said.

The company literally handed out press releases to passengers at the airport.

To appease frustrated customers, "we went beyond our policies," he said, offering snacks, beverages, $500 flight vouchers, free hotels and re-bookings on other AA flights or other airlines.

All along, it wanted to communicate that it cared and empathized with its customers, Frizzell said.

The airline expects flights to return to normal by Saturday evening, April 12, but Frizzell noted that his department's work on the issue won't be over.

"It really is how you handle the immediate crisis in the first few days, but I think you have to look at what's next," he said. "Too many companies think they're done, and I think it's just the beginning. There's a lot more to do."

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