What do we mean when we say that a communication strategy could end up being as tragic as the actual tragedy?

By Linda Tavlin - October 11, 2019

This blog post is by Linda Tavlin, communications expert, and international consultant and Cranfield instructor, who has trained aviation organisations all over the world, including AirAsia and Swiss Air.As the world watches the drama unfolding in the aftermath of air tragedies that occurred in both Ethiopia and Indonesia, we see daily news clips come out watching both Boeing and the FAA trying to answer for the issues surrounding these tragedies. I don’t write about the technical aspects of these events but rather communication. I leave discussion of the issues to those with the expertise to do so. I focus on the way the parties to these events communicate on the peripheral topics that arise and it is many times the way the parties to an event communicate in the aftermath that causes additional credibility challenges.

The FAA has taken a huge credibility hit in a short time frame in such a drastic way that other regulators around the world are not likely to back them up with the re-certification of the 737 Max 8 through bilaterals. And what can one say about Boeing? I am choosing to say nothing. That strategy would meet their reality!

I have deep experience that comes with working for 30+ years with a number of US government agencies, and I can say this about the FAA: they are one of the few governmental agencies from which people leave their jobs within the industry to go to work. They are one of the best agencies in the US government, with a monumental task and the data to back it up that shows their success rate. Working together with the other regulators and industries around the world, I have seen them come to the table for over 30 years and succeed at harmonising regulations - first at JAA meetings and now at EASA. All in order to make the global air transportation system safer.

I can also say this: the FAA has drastically failed in their ability to deliver the message about the process of certification, compliance and enforcement.And this is not just the FAA’s problem. It is the industry’s problem. It has to do with who develops the messaging and is in charge of the strategy long before anything ever occurs.

This is one example of many that have happened to many organisations over the years. When these things occur, what goes wrong that allows them to occur? Let’s examine some of the reasons.

You cannot explain away aviation issues with PR clichés. Therein lies the problem that builds a foundation that results in a meltdown. It’s all okay when things are routine and nothing goes wrong, but when something does fail, you’ll sink on a bed of PR quicksand. These clichés reflect a perceived attitude of complacency. Here are some of them:

  1. The domestic commercial aviation system operates at an unprecedented level of safety. (And, why is that?)
  2. Since X year there have been no domestic commercial aviation fatalities. (And, why is that?)
  3. Aviation is the safest form of transportation. (Why don’t we believe that?)
  4. The safety of the travelling public is our number one priority. (Then why are 300+ people dead?)
  5. We meet and exceed the highest levels of safety. (The worst company in the world would say this)
  6. We meet and exceed our standards. (What? Just meet? Not exceed?)

The travelling public has gotten used to hearing that “we have not had a domestic commercial fatality since 200X.” Why is that? The cliché does not give the reason. That is how you know it is a cliché. One reason is because Boeing (yes, Boeing), Airbus and all the other manufacturers of the world, along with the regulators, have advanced technology so far that we have eliminated the “crash every six months” scenario we used to experience. In addition, the industry, working with operators, regulators and unions on the operations side, has identified trends through many programs in the name of prevention and data sharing. The public has gotten used to it and now takes it for granted but they don’t know why. It is the WHY that is key.

When an organisation has a strategy in place that does not meet reality, they take down the regulator with them. The first thing that happens is that the public says, as we’re seeing with the FAA, “This could not have happened if the regulators were doing their job.” If an organisation has been coasting along on a string of PR clichés, they will not sustain the perceptions of the regulator, operator or manufacturer and thereby the industry.

It’s easy to sit back and watch Goliath fall and fall hard.  We who work in the area of communication and emergency response have insight as to who is going to crash and burn after they actually crash and burn because these are the areas that require “pre-planning” in order to have a strategy that meets their reality. Investigators, regulators, lawyers and insurance companies don’t step in until after the fact. But when I say “communication,” I am not talking about public relations. Public relations does not solve the problem; public relations practitioners can actually cause the problem when they have excluded those responsible for credible answers for these issues—the keepers of the issues—from the strategy itself. It is the safety people who are the keepers of the issues. As a matter of fact, it is the public relations clichés that have been a contributing factor to what is occurring now.

Therefore, I can see whose communication strategy is going to crash and burn long before it happens to them. In case you think this is just the FAA’s problem, let me describe to you something that happened in another country. See if it sounds familiar. If it does and you have a true SMS culture and believe in preventative measures, be very afraid.

I did some work with a regulator not too long ago. I had worked with that regulator over the years and found him/her to be very forward-thinking, first class and professional. The regulator gave me some names of safety contacts to call who might be interested in doing an awareness briefing. An awareness briefing is just a presentation as to who in the world has done a certain thing right, whose solution had been wrong and why, based on thirty years hands-on working experience. It’s not a sidelines analysis so it’s a unique, value-added presentation. 

I had worked before with the first company I called. I called their safety director, who I’d met at a Flight Safety Foundation meeting. The safety manager thought this would be a good idea but “the business continuity manager, who was responsible for their emergency response program, told the safety professional that they already had a contract for external communications at that time so there was no need for the program.” The problem here is that:

  1. The safety professional was recommending the program and the business manager within their structure was overriding the recommendation of the safety person.
  2. The briefing had nothing to do with emergency response.
  3. No external communications organisation had access to the information that was to be presented.
  4. The material had been seen by the country’s regulator agency and deemed value-added and recommended.

What does this tell us?  As an outsider this would tell me that at this company’s bottom line business takes precedent over their concerns for safety. There are two ways of looking at organisations. There are those who look at value-added information like sponges, absorbing and soaking up all the information they can to make themselves more knowledgeable organisations. Then there are those who are like rocks in the pipes clogging the systems and preventing information from flowing in—one individual preventing a wealth of information from getting to many in order to prevent themselves from making mistakes.

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The second company I called was the risk manager of a company newly certified to fly into the US. I told him the regulator suggested I give him a call and he said his biggest concern was, “How to comply with the concerns of the NTSB and be accepted to their team.” I said, “You are not going to be on their team. You are going to be technical advisors to your own state investigators, if they accept you as technical advisor.”

What does this tell you? The risk manager for this company did not understand the process of accident investigation and he had obviously been to the NTSB training class and received the message of “here’s how you can be a subordinate member of our team.” He obviously did not have the correct qualifications for the job. He referred me to their director of corporate communications, but I do not work through these offices because they are not a part of an investigation team. I spoke with this individual, who went on to tell me they had the organisation's most important goal in mind in the event of a tragedy—that being the goal of “reputation management”—and was oblivious to airline’s role in supporting the efforts of the state authority in an international investigation. They already have a strategy in place that does not meet their reality. I was not going to get involved with this. Business decisions for this company are being made in a country separate from where the certificate is being held and where the risk manager is based. The risk manager answers to the corporate communication director.

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The next person I called was the safety director of another airline. Again, I began with “The regulator suggested I give you a call and thought you might be interested.” His shocking response to me was, “I am just low man on the totem pole and I do not have the authority to make any decisions. I need to get approval on everything I do from our emergency response director.”

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These represent three different examples and while none of them quite meet the reality of how it should work, they meet the reality for those particular operators. However, I am sure all of them will tell you they “meet” requirements and that the “safety of the travelling public is their number one priority.”  The things about that cliché is that even the worst company in the world will say the same thing.

In the first example, the safety people had to defer and were shot down by the business people. In the second example, the company had a risk manager who clearly had no clue of the process and deferred to the PR department. When I talked to that department (which I rarely do but given that the risk manager didn’t know his job I had to see what the corporate communications people knew), they did not know the issues either. In the third example, it was just embarrassing.

The safety people of an organisation should be in charge of the communication strategy and the message.  When something happens, they are the ones who are going to have to answer for it. The causes for these events come under their umbrella. When something happens, the strategy should be to send the strongest and most credible message to the travelling public. Who are the people best suited and prepared to do that? Given Ethiopian Airline’s issues, one would hope to see their public responder carrying  a title like VP of Flight Operations, Chief Pilot or Director of Safety, and not “Ethiopian Airlines ‘spokesman’ said by phone: I can’t comment on anything right now” on something that didn’t have anything to do with the event.

Who will suffer from the strategies that exist in the above scenarios? The federal regulators of the airline’s home country. Who will have to clean up the mess if something happens? The investigators of that country. Where is this country? The only thing I can say is that it is within two hours flight time from Paris. 

Just over one year ago (April 2018) the FAA appeared on a double segment of 60 Minutes. Prior to their appearance they wrote a letter to CBS. In that letter they used clichés but also described themselves in this way: “The FAA is the world’s preeminent safety organisation.” What is the aviation world and the flying public saying about the FAA as the “world’s preeminent safety organisation” today? While there may not be anything wrong with their processes as they have said, there has certainly been something wrong with their message. You can read this case study in my book Aviation Communication: Strategy and Messages for Ensuring Success and Preventing Failures.

The director of a major European government organisation recently told me he was interviewing a candidate for a corporate communications position the following day. He asked me, “What should be I asking?” My reply was, “Ask him to tell you who he thinks should be the lead communication strategist for your organisation in the worst-case scenario and what his role should be. If he doesn’t tell you the Director of Safety and my role is to support him. Tell him thank you very much and move on to the next candidate.” When you have a Director of Corporate Communications who realises who it is who actually has to answer for these issues and what role he should play in the process you stand a chance of having a communication strategy that is not a tragedy after the tragedy itself.

To find out what it might be like to study a Transport Systems course at Cranfield University, check out the video below.