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Media and Crisis Management

Crisis Lessons Learned From Airline Tragedy

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Crisis Lessons Learned From Airline TragedyCrisis response

Unfortunately and sadly, enlightenment on crisis management sometimes comes from living through a catastrophe.

Beatrice Taschanz of Swissair took that traumatic shortcut to wisdom when one of her airliners crashed and killed all 229 people on board. This corporate communications chief now speaks with authority and authenticity when she talks to companies that want to know how to prepare for disasters. Before I convey to you some of the lessons she learned, here is a review of the accident.

Smoke poured into the cockpit of a Swissair MD-11 shortly after takeoff September 2, 1998. The pilot reversed course for an emergency landing but never made it. The jetliner dove into waters off Halifax, Nova Scotia. The cause is still under investigation. This tragedy shattered victims’ families, and forever changed the lives of Swissair managers who had planned for, but never truly expected, a crash. Until then, not one of the respected airline’s planes had experienced a fatal accident in the last 20 years. Although stunned, Beatrice and her senior executives acted with a speed and grace that is now considered something of a model for crisis response.

My client, pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome, invited Beatrice Taschanz to address a corporate communications conference in Marly-Le-Roi, France, in May. She made the following crisis management points – among others. I will add my own comments parenthetically.

  1.  It will be like a heart attack for the company. Your emotions will almost overwhelm you. You cannot believe it is happening. You almost panic, and are wondering, “Am I doing the right thing?” You hardly have time to think, and must act immediately. Your response time is zero. There are only minutes between the incident and when you have to begin talking about it. There is no time to wait.
  2.  Put the victims and families first. She said this was their driving philosophy. Swissair spared no expense in helping them. No amount was unreasonable in the first weeks after the crash.
  3.  Be fast, transparent, and open. Fight defensiveness. Beatrice said the company always intended to operate in this manner should a crisis occur, but she found it “harder to do than you might think.” You have to stifle your inclination to pull inward and instead be straightforward with the public and the press. (I call this the “keep no secrets” rule. Managers regularly and wrongly believe they can withhold information in a crisis, but then suffer tremendous loss of credibility when the facts emerge anyway and usually at the worst possible time.)
  4.  Hold your first news conference within an hour. Don’t worry so much about what you will say. Simply show your genuine emotions and tell what your strategy is going to be. (Companies are often dreadfully slow to step up and reassure the public and, in turn, protect their reputation.)
  5.  Keep the media occupied. Swissair met with them every two hours. “As long as you give them something to do they will stay with you. Keep the lead in the crisis or else they will begin operating on their own.”Swissair faced 200 camera crews the first day after the crash.
  6.  Do everything you can to help the media report your story. Beatrice said, “We organized them to help cover our crash since they didn’t have time to do it (organize) themselves.” Swissair even flew reporters to the scene. “You will have to go very fast because the media will be even faster than you.” CNN had already staked out a key camera position near the scene before the company arrived.
  7.  Hold off the lawyers. Beatrice said Swissair’s CEO told company attorneys to come back later because he did not want them interfering with the airline doing and saying the right thing. She said the CEO’s opinion was that the lawyers “are programmed to be enemies of communications,” and would tell him to not do or to not say anything that would cost the company money. (My personal experience is that you can usually, but not always, negotiate with the attorneys to protect your reputation and your pocketbook at the same time. Be wary of lawyers who advise you to say and do nothing publicly.)
  8.  Identify your crisis manager(s) in advance. One or perhaps two people should have absolute authority to act. This cannot be a democracy. They must have top management’s confidence so they can do what needs to be done, and should have access and acceptance at the highest levels of management. (If top management does not pre-authorize a crisis manager to act, that will slow response time, decision-making, and undercut the confidence of people who need to move unbelievably quickly.)
  9.  In a crisis, little things can kill you. Set aside in advance all equipment, space, personnel assignments, etc. that you will need because their absence will impede you in a crunch.
  10.  Big stories last a long time. We underestimated how long the intense coverage would continue. We couldn’t begin to return to normal communications until three weeks after the crash.

Several months after this presentation, Swissair stepped forward to take some responsibility for the crash. A company attorney told a judge, “We agree to share liability for the accident and pay full compensatory damages for each passenger and crew member.”

I have observed that during a crisis, companies like Swissair with strong people and customer-centered values tend to do the right thing, while autocratic and bottom-line fixated businesses tend to make mistakes. Corporate cultures often separate winners from losers.

Beatrice Taschanz humbly said of her company’s post-crash efforts, “We didn’t do anything outrageously well, we did just a few things right. It’s just that the public is so accustomed to bad communications in a crisis.”


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