Happy 2019! I hope it’s a crisis-free year for you.
The pre-Christmas disruption and closure of London’s Gatwick airport and this week’s temporary shut down of Heathrow after drones were spotted flying in the close vicinity of both airfields provides a timely reminder of the value and importance of a coordinated crisis communications plan.
Some authorities, airports, air navigation service providers and airlines have been asking what they could do to be forearmed and prepared for a similar eventuality.
If we step back for a moment, the answer is clear; regardless of the cause, it should be treated like any other disruption with the response management teams being guided by their respective Crisis Communications plans and manuals. While it is impossible to predict the cause of every disruption, a well-written, frequently exercised, updated and fine-tuned plan – that can also be adapted to any crisis - is one essential key to success and survival.
The other is coordination with all of the other affected and interested organisations, each of which have specific audiences to which they need to deliver important information. There will be some overlap but cross-consultation between the affected parties will help to flag inconsistencies so they can be addressed before they cause confusion or conflict. Journalists always look for - and will always highlight - inconsistencies and conflicting information. Those are what make for interesting stories.
Crucially, any Crisis Communications plan should consider that many affected people - especially stranded passengers - will be voicing their frustration and venting on social media platforms, which have expansive reach and are tracked by journalists.
In these types of situations, most of the frustration is caused by operators and airports failing to communicate sufficiently. This only serves to confirm and accentuate perceptions that they are uncaring and unsympathetic.
While validated information about the cause, duration and impact of an unfolding situation like a drone-related closure might be sketchy or non-existent, there are plenty of things the airport, operating airlines, governments, etc. can communicate on - especially what measures they are taking to alleviate the frustration and anxieties of affected travellers.
Actions speak louder than words
Crisis Communications is not just confined to issuing news releases, drafting CEO statements and posting information bulletins on websites. It is at times like this when every action (and every real or imaged failure to act) will be under scrutiny. This calls for consistency in words and actions. Do not tell the world you are sorry and that you care about the affected stranded passengers if your actions do not match.
When Gatwick was closed, many flights were diverted to Cardiff in Wales. The airport went into emergency mode as many of the diversions landed late at night after public transport services had stopped operating for the day. Many passengers had to camp in the airport terminal overnight.
The airport called all essential and standby personnel to work (from top management to janitors and cleaners). They set up free coffee and tea stations for stranded passengers and ensured all bathrooms were kept clean and stocked with enough toilet paper, soap, etc. These seemingly minor, inexpensive - but blindingly-obvious - actions created goodwill and helped to defuse tensions and calm a lot of anxious, uncomfortable and angry passengers.