Saturday, February 7, 2009

Crisis Communications: How you Practice is how you will Respond

There’s been a lot of talk about the quality and tone of US Airways CEO Doug Parker’s statement at his first press conference last month after Flight 1549 ditched into the Hudson River. The Arizona Republic talked with Parker a few weeks after the accident and revealed that Parker had “no accident experience.”

Media Trainer/Consultant Tripp Frohlichstein in an op-ed column for Ragan Communications rightly pointed out that US Airways CEO Parker looked “wooden."

Of course he was wooden. He was reading a script. He was under stress. One of his airlines’ planes was floating in the Hudson River, and reports that all 155 people aboard survived probably seemed more than could be hoped for at that moment.

Performance in a crisis is not about being perfect. It is about training.

It’s easy to look back and decide what Parker should have done differently. My sense is that if he had been trained differently he would have performed differently.

The Arizona Republic article talks about crisis exercises that the company conducts. I wonder, though if any of those drills ever included practice news conferences followed up by moment-by-moment critique of the video? Analysis of the likely questions and suggestions on how to respond and deliver a message of care and concern is what is needed. It’s something that you can’t do just once. Just as his pilots practice emergency situations in simulators, Parker and his exec team have to get into the tank and practice and practice until much of their performance is second nature.

When Doug Parker read his statement then walked away without taking questions, it was as though he had checked the box on the Crisis Communications checklist and it was time to move on. None of the questions would have been hostile or even difficult. I’m a former reporter and what I really wanted to know was how he felt about the fact everyone had apparently gotten out alive. Instead we were left to hear from the Mayor Bloomberg and the Governor Patterson, who called it a “Miracle on the Hudson.”

The governor defined and labeled the moment. I don’t know if he did it on purpose or if he simply gave words to the feelings we all had. It really doesn’t matter. What matters for US Airways is that it lost an opportunity to show its humanity in a crisis that had probably the best outcome of any corporate crisis I can remember.

What will happen the next time when the outcome is likely to be far more grim?

Bill Salvin

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