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Why every aviation disaster must be treated as a public relations crisis

Some public relations professionals have recently asserted that aviation disasters should not be labeled as “PR crises.” For example, the Alaska Airlines mid-flight door blow-out should be viewed as a “safety crisis” for Boeing – but not a public relations one.

I disagree. This perspective fails to consider how quickly a very public discussion raising questions about safety compounded by operational dysfunction will drive negative public sentiment and erode brand confidence. That’s the definition of a public relations crisis.

Every bad aviation disaster witnessed by the public eye is a public relations crisis. In fact, it’s a company’s lack of willingness to acknowledge the public relations crisis they are actively in that so often gets them in trouble.

As someone who specializes in crisis communication, I too often have witnessed executives seeking public relations assistance in the eleventh hour to manage an issue they did not initially view as a PR crisis and therefore did not treat as such. Discounting the important role that strategic communication plays in managing reputational threats undermines the importance of the entire PR industry and ultimately sets up companies to have a more difficult time managing their reputations in the long run.

With about 40% of Americans suffering from a fear of flying, communications around aviation incidents must be managed carefully. Safety is more than a corporate talking point about “commitment.” In the mind of the flying public, safety is an absolute expectation.  

Put simply, if the public is aware of the incident, it’s a public relations matter. If the incident is a crisis, it’s a crisis PR matter. Calling it anything less than a PR crisis undermines the severity of the threat to brand stability and the urgent need for a thoughtful and authentic communications strategy to recover.

We should also recognize that reputation management is an ongoing process, and that any notable incident accumulates a public perception that requires strategic public relations to manage. For some companies – particularly those already significantly exposed – a small incident should be treated as a major reputational threat, because it illustrates a developing pattern and a bigger story.

Each new reputational threat compounds on the ones that precede it. For Boeing, each new crisis heightens the company’s need for further reputation management and crisis communications efforts.

Blowback from the blow-out

When the Boeing 737 Max exit door blew out mid-flight first-hand videos were shared widely across social media. Suddenly the public was able to experience one of their worst nightmares as if they were seated on the plane themselves. As a result of this incident, Boeing’s stock dropped 9% – the equivalent of roughly $13.5 billion in market value.

Though the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s preliminary report does not yet assign blame, Boeing accepted accountability via a wire-released media holding statement. Given that the NTSB likely won’t release a final report for months if not a year, Boeing has substantial reputational work to get done to recover from this and other crises in the company’s recent past. Maybe the final report will clear Boeing in this particular case, but meanwhile the reputational issues having a life of their own — and the public doesn’t always follow up to see what happened. This is why crisis communication is so important and challenging at times: companies are rarely given the benefit of the doubt in the public’s perception, especially when it comes to aviation safety.

Why reputation management is an evergreen issue for aviation giants

Few “PR crises” are ever primarily due to a PR blunder—and it’s misleading to suggest that a PR crisis requires the PR team’s involvement to create the reputational issue. Rather, public relations professionals are brought in amidst a PR crisis to aid in reactive communications amidst rapidly spreading misinformation, public concerns and reputational threats to a brand.

According to a 2020 study on aviation disasters, misinformation that occurs in the aftermath of an aviation-related crisis as a result of speculation surrounding the root cause of the incidents is one of the greatest threats to the reputation of aviation companies. The rapid spread of misinformation in the digital age and the rapid, toxic environment of social media amplifies the need for quick, decisive action from corporate communicators.

The rapid spread of misinformation in the digital age and the rapid, toxic environment of social media amplifies the need for quick, decisive action from corporate communicators.

Aviation safety concerns pose greater reputational risk and therefore require more nuanced communication. Setting the record straight requires sustained, consistent messaging through all available channels including the news media and social platforms. Interest groups and influencers and experts need to be activated to provide facts and bring context to the conversation. The key is to try reduce the spread of misinformation and regain control of the narrative in the media. All of this is crisis communications, and all of it is critical to preserving brand credibility, trust and stability.

Any externally visible crisis has a direct impact on public perception of a brand and should not be downplayed by suggesting that public relations does not play a critical part in maintaining brand confidence. Further, if one of these crises were to be mishandled from a PR perspective, the brand’s financial performance and consumer trust could severely suffer.


 
Maria Stagliano

Director, based in Washington, DC

Maria Stagliano is a strategic communications professional specializing in crisis, risk and reputation management at Leidar USA.

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