For a transport company, it’s hard to imagine a bigger crisis than a crash, which becomes the focus of a global audience.
How can you possibly come through that? Under extreme pressure, any attempts at managing a news-hungry media mob are only going to make you look like a business in panic, on the ropes, out of control aren’t they?
I was reminded of this recently when I again watched the press conference British Airways gave shortly after one of its jets crash-landed with engine failure, just short of the runway at Heathrow in 2008.
Thanks to the skill of the crew, there were no deaths, just injuries.
The media were desperate to know more. How could this have happened? What if it had occurred earlier, perhaps over London or the sea? Could it happen again?
BA anticipated all this and immediately ticked the first box of crisis management – respond as soon as possible. After all, if you decide not to comment, the media will hardly go off and cover something else.
The airline clearly decided the best approach, prior to any investigation’s findings being published, was to accentuate the positive – in this case the brilliance of the crew and how they’d probably averted a much bigger disaster.
So BA stage-managed and crafted a superb press conference with incredible attention to detail.
Let’s take a closer look:
It was live – this gave greater control, as there was no chance for any sneaky media editing
The setting was dramatic – like an arena, packed with loyal, supportive staff, clapping and cheering. Frankly, it was electric.
The crew made a dramatic arrival – they didn’t shuffle on to a stage, they descended in a glass lift, god-like to the ground floor, to take up a more humble position. Great symbolism.
BA boss Willie Walsh was careful not to overplay his role – he was the support act, not the heroic star here and swiftly handed over to the main players.
Captain Peter Burkhill hadn’t even opened his mouth at this point, but the media audience was already in awe.
Now let’s look at the Captain’s statement – it had it all:
- emphasis on BA’s emergency training, professionalism of the crew and the importance of teamwork
- thanks for ALL those involved, including a well-chosen anecdotal mention for the cabin services director, who was standing beside him
- good wishes to those with injuries
- a comment saying he could not give more details on the crash while an investigation was on-going i.e. journalists present should not bother asking him about this, as he wouldn’t be saying anything
- and a fantastic new twist for the media: he wasn’t even at the controls at the time of the crash, it was his First Officer who landed the plane. Fantastic modest touch.
All in all, a triumph.
As it turns out, this story went on to have a few more twists and turns, but this media appearance should be a lesson for crisis management teams everywhere.
But perhaps we should not boost the BA ego too much. After all, there was something the airline could not control, the hero First Officer’s name. Mr Coward.
As we journalists say, you couldn’t make it up.