Business Aviation Insider

Communicating Through a Crisis

An emergency response plan needs to be practiced to build confidence that will work should a real-life event happen.

Sept. 25, 2017

In the aftermath of an aircraft accident, aviation operation employees are traumatized, stressed, emotional. They are overwhelmed with requests for information – from management, families of possible flight crew and passenger victims, regulators, investigators, media. Yet they need to respond calmly and professionally while performing roles that may occur once in a lifetime… and which are overlaid on their more routine daily duties of managing flight operations.

The best way to get through the tragic day and its aftermath is not only to have an emergency response plan (ERP) in place beforehand, but to have practiced its components regularly to build “muscle memory” of what steps to take, who to contact, what information to put out (and what not to put out).

Operators need to be prepared to take care of the three P’s – people, perception (the company brand image), and participation in the investigation.

Ronald Berry III, Managing Director, Fireside Partners

“You’re going to deal with some stuff that happens quickly. There’s going to be a lot of points of data that happen simultaneously. Your job is to interpret that data and make a decision,” advises Ian McAllister, emergency response director of Fireside Partners’ Emergency Operations Center in New Castle, DE.

“Operators need to be prepared to take care of the three P’s – people, perception (the company brand image), and participation in the investigation,” explained Ronald Berry III, Fireside’s managing director. “The ERP is a roadmap. But the experience of managing an emergency response is much more than a piece of paper. It’s a holistic program. It involves a mindset and a culture, which ultimately manifests as a response capability.”

Families First

Fireside and other crisis experts strongly advocate that, before anyone else, the families of potential victims should be notified.

“You don’t want your loved one to turn on Good Morning America and see that there’s a plane crash in Denver, and they know their husband and father was flying there today,” said McAllister. “If that’s the first notice the family has of the event, no matter how forward-leaning the company is after that, it’s hard to work on the perception that the media knew before the families.”

However, it’s best to have a neutral party be the bearer of bad news. “The pilots thought they should be the ones to contact spouses,” said Amber Finchum, ERP leader for State Farm’s aviation operation. “You may think you’re being a good friend, but consider this: in telling someone their spouse has been killed in an accident, they will always look at you as the person who totally changed their life.”

As part of its service to business aviation clients, Fireside provides a trained humanitarian team, not only to make the initial notification, but also to act as “compassion navigators” through the first few days, including supporting families as they travel to the accident site, away from their home and familiar resources.

“After the families, you want employees to know before the press,” Berry notes.

One Media Spokesperson

Social media, of course, has dramatically altered the “news cycle,” enabling instantaneous posting of photos, videos and eyewitness accounts of an event, adding to the pressure on managing accurate communications.

“The important thing in crisis response is speed,” emphasizes Martin Free, Dupont Aviation’s safety manager. “People with cameras want to have the story first, but their information is not verified. We have to be ahead of that wave.”

“Everyone with a phone camera is a reporter,” says McAllister. “It’s not only immediate, in terms of how fast it gets out there, but the accuracy can be zero.”

To preclude adding to the inevitable flow of half-truths and erroneous reports, company employees, including those in the aviation operation, should not provide information to the press or social media. Rather, there should be a single spokesperson, most likely the corporate communications leader, who disseminates periodic, fact-based reports, based on the data available at the time and after consultation with key leaders of the response team and investigators.

McAllister advises, “Confirm the event quickly. If you are open and in front of it, it is much easier to establish trust.” Among the communications templates that Fireside provides to clients is the following opening statement: “You’re going to hear some things during the next few hours, many of which are not true. We care about accuracy and context.”

“If you are deliberate and not slow, you won’t have to refute every tweet that comes afterwards because you’ve already established credibility,” McAllister adds.

Practice Makes Better

State Farm has transitioned to a new “Tactical ERP” developed in conjunction with Fireside. The plan features a color-coded reference table to help quickly determine the magnitude of the response necessary.

Finchum says the new approach “adds a layer of confidence to whomever is making that determination following an event. It is important that, in a stressful situation, anyone can open the ERP, work through the plan, complete the checklist and communicate effectively by following the color-coded system. The Tactical ERP fosters a sense of confidence in the roles needed by having a simplified, efficient plan that will prove invaluable should you be faced with a real-life event.”

An emergency plan should cover more than fatal accidents. It might be triggered by an inflight medical emergency, severe turbulence, a fuel spill, a bomb threat or a maintenance technician falling.

Confirm the event quickly. If you are open and in front of it, it is easier to establish trust.

Ian Mcallister Senior Controller, Emergency Operations Center, Fireside Partners

The communications components of the plan may even be needed when some other operator has an accident close to your home base. People understandably speculate that the aircraft involved might be one of yours, so proactive communications are necessary to quell rumors and protect your brand.

Fireside paces its clients through a series of escalating rehearsal scenarios, both to prepare the teams and individuals for a possible event, and to identify weaknesses in the plan.

Training might include a “tabletop” exercise, which McAllister says “gives you an idea of what’s going to happen in the first couple of hours, but without the pressure of a live event. The next phase is more experiential, adding some real phone calls, but with pauses to discuss ERP adjustments.

“The final drill is real time – no matter what happens – for three hours. If there’s a mistake in the first 10 minutes, it will have a cascading effect. The purpose is to keep participants challenged and involved,” concluded McAllister.

“Most business aviation companies have a plan,” Berry acknowledges. “[But] most of the plans I’ve seen are either insufficient – they don’t address all the components – or they look stellar on paper, but the actual ability of the company to take action on the plan is lacking. For those who walk through these training sessions a few times and are able to iron out the wrinkles, it works very efficiently.”

DuPont’s Free emphasizes the importance of involving all stakeholders in the ERP drills – aviation personnel, C-level executives and corporate departments such as communications, legal, HR and IT. Also, it’s vital to include support partners like Fireside, aircraft management firms, insurance companies, and flight planning and weather services.

“A lot of eyes are opened by the drills,” Free says. Participants “realize these events happen and we need to get out in front of them to protect the corporation.”

Finchum adds, “An aviation event is a completely different dynamic, even a different language from a traditional corporate crisis plan. Integration of the corporate crisis plan and aviation ERP is essential to the overall success of managing an event. It’s important to train the corporate team, get to know the players and build the relationships. The corporate team needs the understanding and confidence in our aviation department to be able to handle an aviation event, knowing they have an integral role in the team effort.”

View a Sample ERP Simulation

Click on the image to view an emergency response simulation recorded at the 2015 NBAA Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) and presented by Fireside Partners Inc.


Review NBAA’s emergency response resources.