Germanwings has been forced to operate beyond the standard crisis comms manual

A week ago the airline Lufthansa was hobbled by a third consecutive day of strike action by its pilots. Aircraft were grounded, flights cancelled and the travel plans of thousands of air travellers disrupted.

The standard crisis comms manual will only take you so far in this scenario, argues Iain Burns
The standard crisis comms manual will only take you so far in this scenario, argues Iain Burns
This was big news in Germany and at the forefront was CEO Carsten Spohr vowing that the airline would stay strong in the face of union action.

Spohr has since had to find an even greater inner strength following the horrific tragedy on Tuesday, when an Airbus A320 flown by Lufthansa’s low-cost subsidiary Germanwings smashed into the French Alps, killing all 150 people who had boarded that morning’s flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf.

Germanwings was quick off the mark with its comms.  

Social media channels were deployed effectively – so often the brunt of criticism by some sections of the public and so-called expert commentators when an unexpected catastrophe happens – although the airline’s website failure due to unprecedented demand was less than ideal.

Suitably attired in dark sombre clothing, Spohr soon fronted a press conference in Germanwings’ Cologne headquarters to express his obvious heartfelt sorrow.

The crisis comms plan had been rolled out with a professionalism that showed Lufthansa and its subsidiary had practised and practised for the eventuality of a plane crash, the first scenario all good airline PRs plan for but hope they never have to face.

The airline’s tone of voice in media statements, both traditional and online, was powerful and compassionate with English, Spanish and French used, as well as German.  

YouTube was deployed with the CEO giving a piece to camera about the horrific events.  

Both Lufthansa and Germanwings darkened their logos on their websites and Facebook pages and the hashtag #indeepsorrow sprung up on Twitter.

As the story unfolded the world shivered at the thought of a modern jet airliner falling rapidly towards the ground in eight chilling minutes. 

And then came the almost unbelievable revelation that co-pilot Andreas Lubitz had purposefully locked out the aircraft captain from the cockpit as he plunged the jet in a fast descent towards its fate.  

This scenario is unlikely to be in too many airline crisis manuals and Germanwings appeared a little uncertain in its subsequent comms.

With low-cost rivals easyJet and Norwegian Air announcing they would quickly adopt a new regime of always having two crew members in the flightdeck, perhaps Germanwings should have been quicker in following suit, to give greater reassurance to air travellers.

Was the crisis response faultless? 

That is impossible in today’s digital society. Dig around the internet and it’s relatively easy to find critics who claim to know better. 

But the way that Germanwings and its parent Lufthansa looked after the families of those that had lost their lives, together with an open approach towards comms in all its various guises, shows that the road to recovery is hopefully under way. 

Iain Burns is MD, crisis and litigation, at Bell Pottinger

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