Crisis Management: A Publicist’s Dream

January 26th, 2009

Valerie Simon

“You haven’t seen the news yet, have you?” my mother-in-law asked. I glanced at my husband in fear, bracing for the worst. Was it related to the economy? Had there been a terrorist attack? A natural disaster?

“It’s a miracle,” she said, and continued on to tell us the story of Flight 1549. As she explained that everyone on the plane would survive, I looked down at my daughter (just one day old, and the reason I had been “disconnected” from the BurrellesLuce and the media for the past 24 hours) and smiled. The rest of the world was being reminded of something I already knew. Miracles do happen.

But how do PR practitioners, particularly those in an industry poised to manage crisis/disaster situations, handle an accident where no one is injured and it appears that no one is to blame?  In the past year, US Airways has certainly had to navigate their fair share of media coverage; the airline filed for bankruptcy, lost baggage and became the first airline to start charging for coffee, tea and bottled water. While an accident certainly is not something that can be promoted as good news, in this particular case, a “feel good” story emerged.

The accident occurred at approximately 3:03 pm EST, and immediately the PR team went into action. Beginning at 4:12 pm, time-stamped press releases were issued on their website and information continued to be released consistently during the rest of the afternoon/ evening and into the coming days. US Airways took command of the situation by communicating details about the accident, the aircraft, and the passengers, as well as the steps that they were taking (activating a team of trained employee volunteers to help those affected by the accident, working with the NTSB), and so forth.

As details regarding the jet’s engine compressor failure two days before the crash came out, U.S Airways continued to focus on how they were handling the situation (sending $5,000 checks to each of the 150 passengers on Flight 1549 to compensate them for lost luggage and other belongings,  reimbursing passengers for their ticket costs, among other things). And of course, touting the professional crew and thanking the public for the outpouring of support.

The story that emerged is the “Miracle on the Hudson,” where the focus continues to be on the tremendous accomplishment of Captain Sullenberger, and the lives spared. In a January 16th The New York Times article, Howard J. Rubenstein, called Captain Sullenberger a “publicist’s dream.” The New York Times also noted that the airline’s share price shot up 13 percent the day after Flight 1549 crashed.

Not surprisingly, coverage of the incident was first recorded by citizen journalists (via Flickr), followed ten minutes later by the websites of traditional media, and another 5 minutes later by the US Airways website. If you are curious to review how the media coverage of the crisis played out, Brendan Hodgson, VP Digital, Hill and Knowlton Canada, posted a “US Airways Crash 1549 Online Analysis” on Slideshare.

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