PR Tactics September 1996 Issue Highlights

TWA Flight 800: A Crisis Casebook

TWA's Long, Hot Summer

By John Elsasser

Michael Kempner remembers seeing the first news bulletin about the fiery explosion of TWA Flight 800. After his initial disbelief and horror, the public relations professional in him took over.

"I saw this TWA spokesperson get on the air. And from how he was dressed and how he looked, I could tell he was totally disorganized," says Kempner, the president and CEO of MWW/Strategic Communications, whose clients include Continental Airlines. "As a PR person, I said to myself, I just can't believe that they put this person up there.' I was shocked by the lack of training, the basic lack of understanding of how to handle this kind of crisis situation."

Then the TWA spokesman by default the jacketless TWA vice president of operations at New York's Kennedy Airport asked the press when they would like him to come back for the next briefing. "Was the press in charge or was he in charge?" Kempner asks. (In fairness, the vice president in question is not a communications pro, which leads some to ask then why he was in charge.)

Despite all the uncertainties surrounding the tragic loss of the New York-to-Paris-bound 747 flight that killed all 230 on board last July, one thing is certain: Every PR pro has an opinion regarding how TWA handled the initial crisis.

While everyone is sympathetic to the situation the airline lost 54 of its own employees in the explosion many PR experts say TWA broke every Crisis 101 Rule in the process. The airline's initial response was so botched, a communications executive at a rival airline reportedly sent TWA a four-point fax on how to handle the crisis after watching the news bulletins. Others say TWA did a reasonably good job under the circumstances.

"It's very easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and second- guess people's response during a crisis," says Aviva Diamond, president of the Los Angeles-based Blue Streak Communications, a firm specializing in crisis communications and media training. "But there are certain basic principles that must be adhered to. You must show up. You must show that you care. You must do everything you can to ensure public safety and show what you're doing." TWA, she says, didn't initially do these things.

Says Bob Druckenmiller, president of Porter/Novelli, "I think TWA were there in spirit and temperament, but they might have shown a little more leadership in the first stage of the crisis."

To make matters worse for TWA, a seething New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani set up camp at JFK, pulling an all-nighter and blasting the airline's upper management for its "abysmal and horrible" performance in notifying the victims' relatives. TWA then foolishly got into a battle of words with Giuliani, making the airline look defensive. (In all, it took TWA 23 hours to notify relatives, which is considered reasonably fast by industry standards.)

Giuliani's actions in front of the cameras, along with the presence of New York Gov. George Pataki, earned the politicos praise in a New York Times editorial two days after the crash, which did little to dispel the notion that TWA was inept and uncaring at the onset.

If TWA's initial response was lacking, most PR experts agree they've handled themselves professionally and compassionately since then. Ron Dwyer, who lost his 11-year-old daughter in the crash, told reporters: "I can't tell you how good TWA people have been to us. A lot of these people are getting beaten up, hit hard. And it's not fair."

TWA's Rocky Road To Respond
A series of unfortunate coincidences hampered the airline's initial response. First, TWA CEO Jeffrey Erickson and public relations executive Mark Abels were in London on business. Erickson was awakened from a deep sleep around 2:30 a.m. London time and told of the tragedy. Nearly 13 hours later, he arrived at TWA's hangar at JFK Airport.

Besides his late arrival, there were very few top managers immediately available at JFK. Critics Giuliani chief among them say the on-duty managers were "callous" toward grieving family members. Calls from the media reportedly went unanswered. According to reports, many TWA managers were attending a going-away party for the company's senior vice president of marketing in St. Louis.

In addition, TWA's executive in charge of the airline's lone Trauma Response Team consisting of 650 TWA-employeed volunteers was vacationing in California when she heard the news. By the evening of July 18 some 24 hours after the plane plunged into the Atlantic Ocean off Long Island the crisis team was in place, having moved families into the media-free JFK Ramada Plaza Hotel.

No Excuses
Despite all this, many crisis experts contend that a solid, well- oiled plan would take into account any bizarre, unfortunate set of circumstances.

"You never know where the CEO is going to be. He could have been fishing in Alaska," says Michael Kempner. "A crisis communications plan can't be dependent on a single person. They could be having their appendix taken out when something happens, so you don't know."

The New York Times noted that Erickson looked unprepared upon his arrival in New York. He cut short a news conference, refusing to answer questions. Later, he couldn't give the aircraft's correct tail number and he gave the wrong year in which the plane was made. An aide quietly had to correct him.

"TWA was absolutely not prepared for this. They had done little or no advanced planning," says Kempner. "People they had on the scene were learning as they went along. They had never taken the time to make sure that their employees understood what to do in a crisis."

PR pros wonder why Erickson didn't hold a quick satellite news conference from London before heading to New York. Or, at the least, put in a phone call to JFK from his plane.

"The most important thing for an airline in a crisis situation is to reassure the public, to show them what you're doing, to show them your compassion, your sympathy, to show them that you're going to move heaven and earth to get to the bottom of this," says Diamond. "Unfortunately, in those first few critical hours, TWA's CEO was nowhere to be seen. It's true that he was in England, but we have modern technology these days."

Says Sharon VanSickle, a founding partner of the Portland, Ore.-based Karakas VanSickle Ouellette Advertising and Public Relations: "It is not realistic to expect that every crisis can be averted. However, it is intolerable for a company to be surprised and ill-prepared when a crisis hits."

PR experts say there are other variables to factor into a crisis plan. For example, touch base with local politicians. Get them to work with you, not against you. Set up reasonable expectations, giving the media an idea of when information might become available. And there are other variables, such as dealing with celebrities. A childhood friend of Joan Lunden, co-anchor of "Good Morning America," was among the victims. Lunden had a daily, high-profile platform to express her anger and sorrow.

"It's not a question of winning or losing, because I don't think you ever win in these kind of situations," says Kempner. "It's a question of how bad you're going to lose. This doesn't become a good story. You're looking to mitigate any damage. TWA did everything they possibly could wrong to compound any possible damage."

Working Under Intense Pressure
Sure, crisis plans look great on paper TWA has one that they run through annual drills. But Erickson and many of the TWA executives had never had to use it in a real-life situation. Despite Erickson's years in the industry, he never worked for an airline that experienced a major crash.

"Disaster plans presuppose that all humans will act like computers and machines and respond perfectly," says Michael Klepper, president of New York's Michael Klepper Associates. "Unfortunately in crisis, there is a human component. There's fear, shock, anger, frustration."

One of Klepper's clients, Tower Air, experienced a minor crisis late last year after one of its 747 jets skidded off a snow-and-ice-covered runway at JFK. Although, no one was seriously injured, the media scrutiny was intense.

"I can tell you that pandemonium breaks out absolute pandemonium," he says. "You can talk about how crisis plans are wonderful, but when you factor in fast-breaking events, human reactions and families and agencies and governments, you're being bombarded from sides you could not have even anticipated. You would have to have a computer response rather than a human response."

Richard Alan Nelson, APR, associate dean for Graduate Studies and Research, Manship School for Mass Communications at Louisiana State University, agrees with Klepper's assessment.

"We're asking people to be perfect and it doesn't always work out that way," says Nelson. "Overall, this is not going to damage TWA that much. They've acted as responsibly as most of us could have in a stressful situation."

Says Klepper, "I think the TWA people did a very respectable job. When all the dust settles, people will realize that TWA reacted as best as they could and maybe better than most."

TWA spokesman John McDonald told The Wall Street Journal: "We were doing things the fastest they could be done. It was a Herculean task, and we were doing it in the middle of the night."

Unreasonable Expectations?
Given the difficulties of implementing a crisis plan in such catastrophic, real-life situations, is it reasonable to think that an executive or communications pro would be able to handle such a situation without error?

"The best thing that you can do is to practice, to envision what scenarios may happen, to make sure that you have the communications tools at your disposal so people know where to reach the top management," says Diamond. "Whether or not the exact situation that they're practicing for is the one that eventually happens is less important than practicing the ability to think on your feet while facing tough questions from reporters and understanding what kind of pressures that will be present."

In this day and age, unfortunately, PR pros say there are enough airline tragedies to use as models.

"Airline disasters have a certain pattern to them. There are historical precedents out there. You can prepare," says Robert Becton, executive vice president, corporate practice, at GCI New York, whose clients include several major airlines. "It's the practice of what you have to go through as a company. Can that be put into a manual? I'm always hesitant to include specific responses like that because then it might fall into the hands of the vice president of operations who is just using the quote because it's there in the book."

However, he says such responses can be put into a crisis manual, though with one caveat it should be tailored to the specific situation. "It never should be mechanized. That's why it has to be done by someone who is computing all the factors that have to go into a quote," says Becton. "You can prepare for it. It's not as mysterious as some companies make it out to be."

Show That You Care
Although PR pros can learn many lessons from the disaster of Flight 800, there's one point that PR pros emphasize over and over: The importance of showing genuine, heartfelt compassion during crises.

"You have to remember the difference between reality and perception," says Linda Gray, director of news and public affairs at the University of Florida. "I'm sure the people at TWA were working like crazy to help the families of the victims and to investigate the crash, but the perception came across as if they were not. Giuliani fueled that. The public needs to know that you care in a situation where people have lost their lives. The most important thing is to think about how you would feel and what you would want in those same kinds of circumstances."

Gray and her fellow University of Florida officials understand the importance of showing compassion during a horrific crisis. In the fall of 1990, five students were murdered in a three-day period by what turned out to be the work of a serial killer.

"When we had our crisis here, we wanted people to know we were doing something," she says. "And doing it isn't enough, you have to let people know you're doing it, and communicate that. That was TWA's initial failing. I have no doubt they were working their tushes off, but you weren't seeing it or hearing it."

A failed system?
The TWA tragedy illustrates a bigger problem, says Ian Mitroff, director of the USC Center for Crisis Management and co-author of "The Essential Guide to Managing Corporate Crises."

"I could go through and evaluate TWA, but that would miss one of the most fundamental things about crisis management: It's a systems problem," he says. "It's not one part. That's why I have a bone to pick with all the PR people who just take one part of crisis management. It's much broader than that. Companies in our society still don't get what crisis management is all about."

For example, in the aftermath of the TWA crash, the National Transportation Safety Board, FBI and the Coast Guard have handled different components of the clean-up. Using the kind of ideal system Mitroff proposes, instead of having a spokesperson at each agency getting involved with the families and media, he would funnel the responsibility through a coordinated crisis team that oversaw all parts of the operation, from consoling the victims to leading press conferences to snuffing the rampant speculation that occurs in such times.

"The light has still not come on. You cannot handle 21st century problems with 19th century thinking and management," Mitroff says. "Most organizations are a mess because they don't know how to manage in a global economy. Now if you put a crisis on top of a mess, you have a real interesting situation.

"We should have learned from the Exxon Valdez. It took a day and a half to go up and down the tortuous corporate hierarchy to get somebody from Exxon to go up there. Can't we learn that that's going to happen to every organization, public or private?"

Facing Up To The Worst
After an initial media frenzy, the TWA story has quietly left the front pages. The tedious retrieval process on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean continues. As of press time, officials were without reasons for the cause of the explosion.

"Overall, their public relations results will be seen as fairly positive," says LSU's Nelson. "They will reinforce their commitment to passenger service. They'll be seen as an airline that did do much under stress. The temporary criticisms will go away."

The airline took a big step in letting the public know what it had been doing for the families of the victims behind closed doors, away from the glare of TV camera. In an Op-Ed published in The New York Times several weeks after the crash, TWA CEO Jeffrey Erickson discussed the difficulties of dealing with the deadly disaster.

"It was not a perfect process. How could it be? The entire operation was organized overnight by a team that, although trained and drilled in their disaster plan, had never actually done this before and hopes to never have to do it again."

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