The phones in the call centre were running hot. The launch of Island Hopper Airlines had been a huge success: flights were at capacity for the next three months and extra flights were being scheduled.
Colin Chambers had identified a niche in the airline market and was filling it; for people who wanted specialised travel and freight transportation from mainland Queensland to the Barrier Reef islands. He had worked hard for four years to pull it all together. Now he had 90 full-time staff, from administration and call-centre staff to baggage handlers and pilots.
Colin had secured deals with a few Australasian airlines to buy smaller planes that were about 10,000 hours “old” but still in good mechanical condition.
Colin had meticulously set up organisational systems that, he believed, were foolproof. He had also developed contingency plans for any unexpected event.
It had been three months since the official launch and everything was going better than planned. Claire, his assistant, poked her head around the door. “Colin, Brian from operations is on line two and says it’s urgent.”
Colin picked up the phone.
“Colin, I have just been informed by the control tower that Flight 333 to the Whitsundays has experienced an engine failure and has been forced to turn around. It will be returning to Brisbane for an emergency landing and should be on the ground in 10 minutes.”
“Will they be able to land safely?”
“I think so, but they are preparing the emergency services just in case.”
“All right,” Colin said. “The moment that plane lands, get a full report from the captain, inspect the plane and call me immediately with details.”
The plane struggled back to the airport and landed without incident. The passengers were rescheduled for a flight for the following day and were then transported to the Hyatt for the night.
Brian’s reports indicated that the problem with the faulty engine was repairable, and downtime would be minimal.
That afternoon, Claire told Colin that a journalist was on the phone.
“Mr Chambers, my name is Sophie Parker. I am ringing with regard to today’s emergency incident involving IHA Flight 333. Can you provide us with details and an official response from the company about the emergency and your safety procedures?”
“Well, Sophie, I’m not sure we’ve got anything to speak about, as there really wasn’t much of an incident, especially not one that needs media coverage.”
But Sophie would not be put off and Colin realised that she would only be satisfied once she had some information.
He tried to keep calm. “Well Sophie, IHA Flight 333 departed at 1400 hours to the Whitsunday Islands. A minor mechanical problem was experienced and, as a precautionary measure, the plane was diverted back to Brisbane. The plane landed safely. All passengers have been provided with accommodation and catering and will be resuming their flight tomorrow.”
Sophie persisted and, after a few minutes of bantering, Colin revealed that the incident involved one of the engines. He hurriedly went on: “In terms of safety, the captain and crew of Flight 333 followed all the procedures that IHA has in place, and they handled a minor safety situation in a very professional manner.”
“Could you tell me about IHA’s maintenance program? Was the mechanical failure due to a lapse in maintenance procedures?” Sophie said.
“Maintenance of our fleet is of the utmost importance at Island Hopper Airlines and we have safety checks and a maintenance schedule that are as stringent as those of any of the major airlines in the country.”
The interview concluded and Colin thought no more of it.
The next day, when Colin arrived, on his desk was a pile of messages from television and radio stations and newspapers requesting interviews about the emergency. Colin also saw a copy of the newspaper on his desk; emblazoned across the front page was the headline island hopper airlines brought back to earth and an article describing the emergency, with a picture of distraught passengers and quotes about how they thought they were going to die.
Colin was perplexed; he could not understand how a front-page story had evolved from such a minor incident.
He immediately issued a memo to all staff directing them not to take calls from the media or to make any statements about the emergency to anyone.
Throughout the day, journalists called every 20 minutes asking for interviews. Colin did not return their calls.
Then he began receiving messages from maintenance staff complaining that journalists were pestering them for a statement. The story was escalating into one about a lack of maintenance and safety procedures. The scheduling manager called to inform Colin that bookings were only slightly down. Colin was relieved that sales were not being affected by the negative publicity. He hoped that the story would blow over and that normal business would resume.
Colin monitored the media all that day. That evening, there was only a 30-second clip about IHA on the news and he assumed that this meant that the media were losing interest because he had not provided a statement or any more details to expand the story with.
The next morning, Colin was devastated to read the front-page headline: “IHA: plummeting safety standards”.
Quoting a source described as a former IHA maintenance engineer, the article alleged that IHA had a poorly organised and deficient maintenance schedule. The source was quoted as saying that IHA management spent the minimum on maintenance.
As Colin arrived at the office, media people swarmed around him. He responded to all questions with a firm “no comment”.
The atmosphere in the office was tense. Claire greeted him with messages and faxes, mostly from media and pressured staff. “Also, I have made an appointment for you in 10 minutes with Martin Smith, secretary of the Airlines Union.”
Colin knew that most flight staff around the country were members of the union, and Martin had the power to stall IHA’s operations.
Martin seemed a reasonable man. He was disturbed by the allegations of a lack of safety and maintenance standards. “We want safety policies and maintenance procedures in place to prevent these kinds of incidents. We have no alternative but to resort to strike action until you can show us you have improved your safety standards,” Martin said.
“But, Martin,” Colin said, “this is being blown out of all proportion. Our flights are fully booked for weeks and hundreds of people will be inconvenienced. There must be another way.”
The two men debated for more than an hour. When Martin left, the situation was at a stalemate. Colin knew that strike action could destroy his airline.
The IHA call centre was going mad. The operators did not know how to respond to aggressive queries from travellers; and the media were harassing them for any sort of comment.
Media coverage of the potential strike action had resulted in plummeting bookings and an increase in cancellations. Colin realised he needed to act quickly and reasonably to the demands of the union. He made appointments with lawyers and advisers.
Colin had spoken to Brian about the maintenance schedule and there seemed to be no grounds for the claims. The former employee making the allegations had been laid off due to some serious mistakes he had made. It seemed that he held a grudge against the company.
Everyone wanted answers and the media were painting IHA as the villain that cut costs at the expense of safety.
Colin knew that he had to stop the panic and that the company had nothing to hide. He told Claire to return all calls from the media and ask them to attend a conference in the boardroom in an hour.
Colin began preparing his opening statement. The incidents of the past two days had occurred quickly and without warning and he had made bad decisions. The media were frustrated by his lack of co-operation. He assumed that they would not be kind to him now.
Colin entered the full boardroom. Cameras, lights and microphones were set up to capture the interview.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen,” he began.
What could Colin have done to prevent the crisis from escalating? How could he have treated the media when the story started? What processes should he implement to avoid a recurrence?
Proposed solution #1
Frank Emrys is a Communications Consultant. Working primarily on a contract basis, he has been involved with developing communication strategies for a variety of companies from a media and PR perspective. A tertiary trained journalist, he uses his academic background to maximise a client’s publicity while minimising any negative publicity.
Many people might be inclined to think that Colin reacted in a reasonable manner, faced with the over-enthusiastic media people, however the truth lies somewhere between the two approaches.
Air safety, as recent events in Australia have shown, is a big story. People love stories of danger, and the level of cynicism among the public means that no matter how often you deny something, the more likely people are to believe it. Colin’s initial attempts to hide the story made it seem as though there was more to the story. In fact, Colin himself admits this near the end of the case study.
However, one of the most telling points is made before the incident even occurs. Despite claiming to have planned for every foreseeable contingency, and meticulously creating its operational systems, Island Hopper Airlines did not have a media policy. Colin may have been a excellent businessman but he was not a public relations expert. It was foolhardy not to have a public relations specialist as part of his staff.
Perhaps the board felt that state-based travel agents would do to promote the organisation. Perhaps they felt that Colin should handle the resultant publicity (which would have been mostly favorable) from the launch of the airline. Perhaps, given that the first minor incident failed to attract much media interest they felt a degree of overconfidence in the way the market perceived them. It shows a frighteningly common misperception in Colin’s words, “most of the hard work was over”.
So how could Colin have avoided some of the problems?
1)Have a media industry professional available. If a company feels it cannot afford one full time, hire a part-time person or contract an outside firm.
2)Colin feels he developed a rapport with journalists during the launch. He should have continued to utilise this rapport when he discovered a crisis was brewing. In other words, Island Hopper should have announced the difficulties. That way it does not look as though there is something to hide. It is an unfortunate fact that bad news sells.
3)If journalists ring with a story they have uncovered, do not tell them there is no story. Answer questions fully and frankly and, if there is no story, the facts will bear this out.
Should you be unwilling or unable to provide the facts at this point, do not try to fob the media off. Instead call a media conference or reschedule the interview for a mutually convenient time. Be aware that different media organisations have different deadlines so do not, for example, delay a TV interview until after 6pm so that it will not go to air.
In many cases journalists will run with what they have and it is always better to have a mitigating comment from the company’s point of view.
And, naturally, if you reschedule, you should have something to say when you do the interview
4)Never order a media blackout without a plausible reason. In some cases you can hide behind legal restrictions or on-going investigations, but silence is always suspicious. I do not necessarily like the implications of this statement, this lack of trust is not something solely limited to the media but to the way most people react. People, in general, want answers not prevarication. Silence is definitely not golden.
5)If you refuse to comment, be aware that the media will usually find someone that will. In this case it is the union and a sacked employee, but there will almost always be someone prepared to discuss your situation. In cases such as this they may even be commenting on rumors, allegations or theoretical (the familiar academic brought in to comment) outcomes.
The text of the case study accuses the media of giving the union’s Martin Smith power over Island Hopper. This is not true. Colin, himself, gave Martin the power by abdicating his role in the discussion. As we have seen, a more proactive approach would have reduced the repercussions immensely.
I have many concerns about the nature, role, and operation of the media. But these concerns are identifiable and will not be solved here. However, the media’s reaction was predictable and should have been foreseen and solutions prepared.
For many companies, especially new companies which rely on the goodwill of the public, the world of the media is a tool, not an enemy agent or evil force trying to destroy a business. Island Hopper may have been the best airline in the country, and there is nothing in the case study to imply otherwise, but when it comes to selling a product, it is not enough.
VHS did not replace Beta and Microsoft did not become a corporate giant based solely on the technical value of the product. They were also “seen” as offering the best, easiest solution.
In summary, Island Hopper should have:
1)Employed a media/PR/communications specialist to respond to such situations
2)Given all senior executives who might be approached for interview a degree of media training
3)Developed a proactive rather than reactive strategy
It must be noted that the public’s (and journalists) memories are notoriously fickle. The story will probably blow over in a couple of weeks, and Island Hopper could continue to trade provided it has sufficient resources to survive the crisis.
One hopes it has learnt a lesson.
Proposed solution #2
Toby Vaughan runs his own electronics firm, supplying specially designed components for other companies. He is looking at franchising options for the business and has been involved in creating a media strategy to announce the company’s planned expansion.
Colin and Island Hopper Airlines Airlines have fallen victim to what Professor H. Eugene Goodwin calls “pack journalism”. This is a phenomenon whereby one journalist picks up a story and, through a variety factors, it becomes a big story, not because it deserves to be but because no one wants to be seen as missing out on it.
Pack journalism, according to Goodwin in his book Groping for Ethics in Journalism, has unfortunate side-effects. The most important in this case is the tendency for journalists to run the same story because others are running it.
Island Hopper Airlines was not presenting an alternative story, and the media were within their rights to run with the source material they had, although experts like Goodwin and others would have ethical issues with the way the story unfolded.
Disaster and bad news stories make headlines, and there are some stories, such as possible air disasters, that capture the public imagination. Public perception is a fundamental, irreplaceable element in any business, especially in the service industry where one is selling the ability to perform a task.
Colin and Island Hopper Airlines erred in not preparing for the situation. This is common mistake for many medium-sized or newer businesses. The focus is on setting up the way the company functions, and ensuring that there are enough staff to implement policies and that the company has met its legal and economic requirements.
For Colin and Island Hopper Airlines, it was the very act of running away from the problem that caused the story to grow into a monster. Researchers make the point that the media do not necessarily tell the public what to think; they them tell what to think about. This is a contentious issue in some quarters, but it acknowledges that mass media organisations exist within a framework and will reflect the values and prejudices of their prime audience.
The company should have been responding immediately rather than allowing such a negative wave of publicity to go unchallenged. At the same time, it should have been preparing a series of marketing strategies to win back public support reduced tickets, charity support, good news stories about the number of Australians employed. This is not intended to hide the existing story but to balance some of the coverage as well as ensure that the company continues to take bookings while the crisis was in full force.
One of the problems facing Island Hopper Airlines was the fact that the story moved from an inside page to the front page. The crisis demonstrates how fickle the media can be, as only a short time ago Colin would have said he had a good relationship with the media after the successful launch of the airline. Had IHA called a press conference almost immediately, it could have helped shape the news by presenting an alternative, balancing angle that would have gained the support of some of the media (if only so they could be different to their rivals).
The union leader, Martin Smith, is one example of others trying to capitalise on the company’s difficulties. Had he consulted his members, instead of listening to the rumors, he probably would have discovered that the alleged safety issues were not as important as was being presented in the media. Also, the history of the sacked employee who complained about safety should have been examined more thoroughly by the media.
No matter how prepared you think you are, there is always something that can go wrong. IHA should learn from the experience and employ a public relations consultant or staff person to handle future issues. Colin, the board, and any person likely to speak to the media should have media training.
Colin and his team should also look at building stronger relationships with the media and unions.