Strategic communication in crisis management – Lessons from the Airline Industry

Author: Sally J. Ray

The context of plane crashes is a central example of what threatens the legitimacy of the airline, its image and reputation, and the financial situation. It has a tendency to transmit across the industry, hitting not only the victims and the airline, but also the stakeholders. The aviation society must therefore protect its long-term interests and public image. To this end, an effective communication plan is critical. This can be built up according to the course of a crisis in three phases: pre-crisis, crisis and post-crisis. Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that the crisis extends to more than just the organization. It is a system with many interdependent variables, so focusing on only part of the system is limiting our understanding of the crisis and the communication involved.

In a plane crash, trying to understand the necessary communication raises a number of questions: which factors influence communication? How do these factors define the boundaries of the organization’s efforts to repair the reputation damage and resolve the crisis? Which communication strategies are the most effective? Which variables influence that effectiveness? How can an organization prepare to manage one of the crisis?

To effectively address the effects of a crisis, managers must understand its nature, management rules and the implications of right and wrong communications. This provides a sense of predictability and expectations when a crisis occurs.

Throughout the story, theory and practice are intertwined. The practice consists of a number of drawn-out cases of plane crashes, in which the communication is dissected in a “ scrutinizing ” way, each time identifying a number of crystal-clear lessons.

The six most important lessons of strategic communication in crisis management from the aviation sector are perhaps :

  • A key to effective crisis management is the development of a responsible organizational culture that values ​​safety and is sensitive to the dangers of its operational operation.
  • Planning for crises reduces some of the uncertainty associated with managing a crisis; however, crisis managers must anticipate the challenges of applying a rational plan to an irrational situation. This requires a 360 ° view: people with different backgrounds, education and interests must be recruited or a great deal of education and training must be provided.
  • An organization in crisis must communicate from the beginning that it is in control and is concerned about the situation.
  • An organization must be sensitive to stakeholder perceptions of the actions and reactions of the organization during the crisis.
  • The media attention determines the seriousness, significance and direction of the crisis and is directly reflected upon the organization’s image; therefore crisis managers need to have a very good understanding of the journalistic processes in covering a crisis.
  • When an organization defends its position or image, its strategic communication choice must be determined against the background of this unique crisis situation.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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