Guidelines for Aviation Crises Provide Statement Timeline

Thom Weidlich 10.03.19


The International Air Transportation Association has published crisis communications guidelines with a special focus on social media for airlines and other aviation companies. The section on the timing and content of messages in response to a crisis struck us as particularly good and relevant for other industries.

The IATA guidelines focus to some extent on fatal accidents. Such tragedies don’t occur that often in the airline business, the Montreal-based group admits, but “the corollary is that when these accidents occasionally happen, the people responding are most likely doing so for the first time.”

IATA invokes what was once viewed as the “golden hour” — the view that the first message responding to a crisis should come within an hour of the organization learning of it. That’s no longer good enough. The first response should come within 15 minutes, even if the message (usually a tweet) only announces that awareness. It should also include basic information such as the flight number and destination and a commitment to provide updates. This could be followed by further short tweets once more is learned.

Within the first hour, a summary should go out over various channels, including a website, with the information known at that point, IATA says in the guidelines published May 31. This should repeat statements from the first messages (tweets), and also include: an expression of condolence or empathy, actions taken by the airline, and the company’s immediate priorities. The summary shouldn’t speculate on the cause of the accident or the direction of the accident probe (that’s the investigators’ job).

For example, Ethiopian Air’s first substantive summary after its fatal crash in March included the information IATA mentions and also estimates of how many passengers and crew were on board (“we are currently confirming the details of the passenger manifest for the flight”).

IATA says further summaries should come out hourly or when new information is learned. If a dark site has been prepared, it should be activated at this point.

Marketing Messages

The group also recommends that, within an hour of learning of the accident, the company’s branding should go to monochrome, and marketing messages should be discontinued, especially if they would mix badly with the negative news.

Southwest changed its digital branding to plain blue with a monochrome logo for the first three days, gradually transitioning back to its normal personality after 10 days.

–International Air Transportation Association

Changing the logo color after an accident is becoming common in aviation — in a way, an act of mourning. “Southwest changed its digital branding to plain blue with a monochrome logo for the first three days, gradually transitioning back to its normal personality after 10 days,” IATA says. That was after an accident in April 2018 when debris from an engine failure smashed a window, causing a passenger to be partially sucked out of the window.

Within three hours, a senior executive (preferably the CEO) should arrive at the location where victims’ families are gathering and should give his or her first public statement. The CEO could also record a video statement to be uploaded to the website (CEO Gary Kelly did that with the Southwest accident).

Within the first six hours, the first press conference should be held, after which the airline should provide further information via press releases, interviews, or more press conferences, IATA writes. Such continued communication will probably be required for the first week of the crisis.

Events that may go beyond day three include funerals, memorial services, and release of investigative findings.

IATA says that the communications responsibility may stretch even further — for example, for the one-year anniversary of the accident.

Photo Credit: Vytautas Kielaitis/Shutterstock

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