Contain the Dragon

“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”

J.R.R Tolkien, “The Hobbit Or There and Back Again”

Today, we are in the middle of a pandemic that has led to millions of deaths and ravaged lives and businesses around the world. Scientists and historians understood that if it had happened before, it could happen again – and it did. Last century saw the “Spanish flu” which killed more than 20 million people around the world, and in the past 20 years, millions have died because of HIV/AIDS, SARS, MERS and Ebola.

The tsunami that struck the east coast of Japan in 2011 was similar to the tsunami that devastated South and Southeast Asia in 2004. Likewise, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, floods and other acts of nature have long histories of devastation.

After more than 30 years in the aviation business, I have witnessed scores of tragic airline accidents. My job then, as it is now, is to help companies communicate to their employees, affected families of passengers and crews, government officials and others – honestly and regularly during difficult times, to ensure the company does the right thing, and that the company is the most credible source of information.

In every case in which I have been involved, the accidents were “predictable” because like the pandemic, in some form, they had happened before.
The shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2004 was a sad reminder of a Korean Airline jet, KAL 007, that was shot down in 1983. Well before Germanwings crashed in 2015 because of the actions of the pilot, there had been other examples of suspected pilot suicides. The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in 2014 was another reminder of Amelia Earhart’s plane that was lost in 1937 and never recovered.

In addition to looking at accidents in the commercial aviation business that have roots in other events, statistics show that more than 50 percent of all commercial airline accidents (and 62 percent of the fatalities) happen in the period of take-off and initial climb, and the final approach and landing. That means there is a good chance that an accident will happen near an airport. Unfortunately, many happen away from an airline’s home base where an organization may not be as well-resourced or well-trained to deal with the aftereffects of the event in a timely manner.

If events have happened before, they are predictable. If they are predictable, the responses to them can be planned.

J.R.R. Tolkien, an English writer, poet, and academic, expressed the idea of planning and the risks of not planning very clearly in his book, The Hobbit Or There and Back Again: “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations if you live near him.”

All companies have a “live dragon” living near them. That dragon is called risk. The job of communicators and other emergency planning professionals is to figure out how to contain or vanquish the dragon.

First, one must understand the actual risk – environmental, management/labor issues, product liability, terrorism, or workplace safety. Secondly, if realized, how would that risk impact the business and its reputation? While they are rare, one of the biggest risks for an airline clearly is an incident or accident.

“The best protection against the dragon is a plan developed before the dragon breathes its fire.”

Think of the plan as a shield against the dragon.

From a communications standpoint, the starting point to having a fireproof shield is a crisis communications manual/process that highlights the following:

  • Individual roles and responsibilities of those communicating on behalf of the organization
  • Pre-written, pre-authorized, and legally-cleared statements for both employees and external audiences. They should be written for traditional media, as well as social media
  • Contact information for company executives, as well as key media, airline partners, airport PR executives, and regulatory officials
  • Information on the company history, its fleet and model type(s)
  • Frequently-asked question and answers, also knowns as FAQs
  • What resources are available to view and respond to electronic/social media, including flight-tracking apps
  • A press conference/press-ready briefing site both at headquarters and in key locations around the world.
  • A plan for what happens when an accident happens far away from the headquarters location; how long will it take company executives to get to the accident scene, and what responsibility do the people on site have in the interim

With a manual/process in hand, a company needs the right resources to manage communications:

  • Have executives been media trained to know what they can say…and what they cannot say
  • Is there company policy regarding who can talk to the media: just headquarters executives or country managers, station managers, public relations agencies and partners
  • Does the company have a PR agency and is the agency or agencies prepared to represent the company in a crisis
  • If the crisis continues for days, is there a plan to ensure the people responding to the crisis, stay healthy and well-rested

With a plan and the appropriate resources, a company has a shield to protect itself and contain the dragon. To strengthen the shield, however, a company needs to practice its dragon-fighting skills on a regular basis. That means practicing with the company’s executive leaders, public relations/communications staff, appointed and trained spokespersons at its headquarters and in remote locations, as well as airline partners, airport officials, police, and fire departments.

The crisis communications plan is the best protection a company has to contain the dragon, and the best weapon against the dragon is TRUTH.

It must be wielded to:

  • Communicate on a timely and regular basis
  • Deliver a consistent message to all stakeholders
  • Lay out a plan that details what actions a company will take to ensure the safety of its passengers and crew
  • Show compassion for those who were affected by an accident
  • Accept responsibility for dealing with what has happened.

While the airline industry has a good safety record, accidents do happen. If crises are predictable, their responses can be planned. If a company does not have a plan, or does not practice it on a regular basis, it is putting its business and reputation at risk.

The plan is the shield; the weapon is truth.
Know the dragon.
Have a plan.
Practice the plan.
Contain the dragon. (Maybe even vanquish the dragon.)
But always pay attention to the location of the next dragon.

Jerry Hendin

Sr. Associate, Public Relations & Communications

GoCrisis