Crisis Management – How Far Does it Go?

Setting off from Spain on Wednesday, 25th March, the morning after news broke of the GERMANWINGS aircraft going down over the French Alps, was a very strange experience; we were at the airport at exactly the same time as the plane had taken off the previous day and it was eerily quiet, and then on the flight to Paris no-one was really speaking or doing much at all… just waiting to get it over with. For the first time that I have seen on a scheduled flight, everyone clapped and cheered when we landed – which was really quite emotional.

As someone that flies quite a lot, however, I spent a lot of the flight looking at ways to take my mind off the fact that I was actually quite nervous, and one of the things I pondered was how I would manage the situation if I was appointed by GERMANWINGS to handle the crisis management – just going off slightly, I wrote about crisis management once before and a few people said to me that they were unaware that PR agencies (or anyone else for that matter) actually handle this kind of thing… but yes, we do, and we, ourselves, have done a huge amount over the past 20 or so years, including for another airline that had a crash…

My first thought when watching the early interviews with the CEO of the company on Tuesday evening was that he was too ‘trained’ – someone like me had taught him how to speak to the camera and he was very polished, even smiling a bit – not very good in the circumstances. But then (and I guess that was because of someone like me too!) he was replaced by a very good VP who spoke well whilst being obviously choked up. First amendment to my usual ‘crisis management process’ is to note that, whilst being professional and calm in a ‘normal’ crisis is good, when it is of a monumental scale… maybe showing a bit of emotion is no bad thing.

Reading some of the reports, especially in the ‘tabloid press’ on Wednesday morning, it sounded as if this particular plane had had a few problems in the past, but they had been kept quiet – I have always been of the view that if you are a high profile company and you have a problem, it is best to be honest about it, as sooner or later it will come out, and the fallout then might be a lot worse. Of course the risk to a company’s business when reporting every little issue can be huge. But if something has been kept quiet and then it comes out in a situation such as this one, the risk to the business can be catastrophic. Second point to note; covering up problems can sometimes come back to bite you.
What was also clear during Wednesday was that the media had been digging about a lot during Tuesday night and a lot of what was being printed was speculation – and in our experience, speculation usually starts at home (it seems that it was actually an ‘anonymous person’ that first leaked the news that the pilot was to blame). This made me wonder just how much information was being passed to staff and stakeholders during the course of Tuesday and Wednesday, and whether, in fact, everyone’s focus was on the management of the information that was going out to the media. Something that we have often talked about in crisis management is the need to make sure that staff and stakeholders have ALL the necessary information before anyone else, and that they are all fully aware of the need to keep everything confidential, since it is often ‘rumours’ from insiders that get printed over and above the official line.

I am writing this two days after the crash, whilst watching the ongoing news about the pilot, and wondering what the effect of all of this will be on the various companies involved – for sure it will be difficult to rebuild the GERMANWINGS brand (although not as difficult as it would have been if the cause had been that the airplane was too old, or they had known it had been faulty – as had been mentioned previously). Andy maybe we will notice when we next get onto an A320 plane. But in a few weeks’ time, a lot of people will have forgotten which airline or airplane was involved, and life will go back to normal.

The thing is, even the worst type of publicity can sometimes be overcome and in years to come the only thing that people will say about GERMANWINGS is ‘oh yes, I have heard of them’…

And the purpose of this blog? There probably isn’t one… just my own usual need to write something down in order to somehow feel better about it.