Friday, June 19, 2009

When non-disclosure is the best approach

Yesterday’s tragic report of the mid-air death of Continental Airlines Flight 61’s pilot over the Atlantic raises an interesting question Continental’s corporate communications team would have had to consider: what do we tell the passengers on board in a case like this?

Continental reportedly elected not to say anything to passengers while the flight was in the air – rather, crew made an announcement asking for medical assistance, without providing any further details, and then cabin crew calmly and professionally resumed normal activities.

The rest of us on the ground, however, were reading reports of the pilot’s death and the back-up pilots’ assumption of the controls before the flight landed.

Continental’s approach – to protect its passengers from unwarranted panic (since there remained two highly-qualified pilots on board to complete the flight) – worked out well, and all the passenger accounts I’ve heard and read have expressed gratitude at not having been aware of the situation until after they had safely landed.

The story raises an interesting question, though: given the almost instantaneous spread of news over the Internet, would the approach have been the same had there been a greater possibility of passengers communicating with someone on the ground? What if the flight hadn’t been transoceanic, and passengers had been more likely to use phones? Might the airline have shared the information in a calm and rational way with passengers, to reassure them they were in good hands before the opportunity for panicked interpretation from the ground crept in?

I’d imagine these protocols are all set out in advance in every airline’s crisis communication plan, so decisions like these don’t have to be made on the spot. This response is likely just one aspect of Continental’s overall crisis communication plan – and a real-life illustration of why every organization should have one at the ready.

[Update] A Different Situation Entirely:

After having read this post, a faithful reader reminded me of this story from 2005, when a JetBlue Airbus drama unfolded before the world's... and the passengers'... eyes on television.

Thanks Jackie!

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