1 Running head: AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 1 Crisis Communication Response Analysis Air France Flight AF447 Crash A Capstone Project submitted to THE FACULTY OF THE PUBLIC COMMUNICATION GRADUATE PROGRAM SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION AMERICAN UNIVERSITY WASHINGTON, D.C. In Candidacy for the Degree of Master of Arts by Tamara Cabur April 22, 2010
2 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 2 Table of Contents SECTION ONE Abstract.. 3 Introduction. 4 Literature Review Methodology 12 Research Findings Drivers of Value Recovery.. 13 Chief Executive Leadership. 14 Cultural values and Language Barriers The media 16 Experts versus Managers. 17 Spokesperson 18 Internal Audience. 19 Volunteers 20 Training 21 Litigation and Identification 21 Elements of Best Practices. 22 SECTION TWO Air France History Air France Accidents History Air France Flight Air France Flight The Accident The Search Efforts The Investigation. 26 Air France Response Air France Response Analysis Action, Communication and Compassion Chief Executive Leadership Cultural Values and Language Barriers The Media Experts and Specialists Spokesperson Internal Audience Volunteers. 40 Training. 41 Litigation Research Significance Conclusion and Discussion References
3 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 3 Abstract Aviation history has witnessed hundreds of aircraft crashes over the years, and the catastrophes negatively affected the reputation of many airline companies. While some airlines managed to effectively handle the crisis and save their reputation, others failed. It is possible for an airline to restore its image and regain its value if it acts quickly and communicates effectively. In the aftermath of the crash of flight AF447 from Rio Di Janeiro to Paris on June 1, 2009, Air France had to face the worst type of crisis an airline could face, which is the loss of a plane. Two hundred twenty eight crewmembers and passengers died. Although Air France did an excellent job in several areas, the organization had to address some issues in other areas more properly. The way the airline has dealt with the victims was very compassionate, the leadership of its CEO and his effective responses as a spokesperson was exemplary, and its management of the negative messages communicated in the media was well controlled. However, Air France did not do enough regarding its internal stakeholders and social media. Keywords: Air France, airline, crisis, crash, response
4 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 4 Introduction Fatal air crashes are the worst type of crises that airlines face. Victims, outraged families, investigations, recrimination, blame, media, and many other pressures put the airline s reputation under question. Handling such catastrophes requires the involvement of top management and entails the utmost professionalism. Effective crisis management and efficient leadership are the keys to restore the company s image. This paper examines the crash of flight AF447 and analyzes Air France s response based on a list of best practices that was drafted from the study of some previous major airline crashes in aviation history. The study evaluates the effectiveness of Air France in dealing with the crisis and suggests some lessons to be learned. The audiences who will benefit from the findings of this study are airline companies. Whether Air France s recent crisis-handling model has strengths or weaknesses, it could set an example for other companies to follow, and help them adapt the strong points or correct the flaws of the model more efficiently.
5 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 5 Literature Review A Strategic Approach to Crisis Management Burnett (1998) proposed a model that incorporates management literature on crisis and introduces the crisis construct. He also suggested modifying the employed approaches and improving the effectiveness of public relations professionals as crises managers. He identified three approaches to the study of crisis management. The first approach is case analysis of organizational crisis, which deals with case studies of organizations experiencing crises, and focuses on how these companies resolved them. Another approach is crisis prescriptions, which primarily emphasizes delineating prescriptions for crisis identification and resolution. These prescriptions include guidelines such as setting a broad strategy in advance, responding quickly, training spokespeople in advance, seeking third party support and centralizing the spokesperson s function. The last approach is crisis management models that the process of Gonzalez-Herres and Pratt has illustrated. They posited that issues management, planning prevention, crisis and post-crisis are four steps characterizing the crisis management process. The Discourse of Renewal (Post-Crisis Communication) Ulmer et al. (2007) argued that in addition to image restoration, the discourse of renewal is an important genre of post-crisis discourse. The scholars described image restoration theory, which focuses primarily on the immediate outcome of an event and uses various strategic messages including denial, shifting the blame, corrective action and minimization to repair the image of the organization or individual under attack. However, the discourse of renewal extends beyond image restoration to a post-crisis innovation and
6 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 6 adaptation of the organization. It focuses on the provisional responses and the leaders natural impulse to rebuild and move beyond crisis. Ulmer s renewal model has four characteristics: provisional, prospective, optimistic and leader-based. The renewal provides a natural and immediate response to an event and is concerned with how the organization moves forward. It also focuses on the organization s ability to see the potential for opportunity in crisis, and view leaders as models and instrumental forces for overcoming crisis. Crisis type, stakeholder relationship, corrective action and organizations ownership (public versus private) are all conditions that impact renewal. Massively destructive natural disasters and crises create a context most conducive to renewal. Developing instrumental communication channels and relationships with stakeholders can help the organization overcome the crises challenges. When organizations illustrate their commitment to correct the problem and follow it up with meaningful action, the renewal is more likely to occur faster. On the other hand, private corporations have easier time adopting renewal than public corporations because of the entrepreneurial spirit, autonomy and resources that private owners have or spend to move beyond the crisis. Stealing Thunder Arpan and Roskos-Ewoldsen (2005) defined stealing thunder as a selfdisclosure strategy in which the organization breaks the news about its own crisis before the crisis is discovered by the media or revealed by another interested party. They argued that stealing thunder results in higher credibility ratings, less severe perceptions of the crisis and higher levels of intent to purchase the product involved in the crisis.
7 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 7 A path model with several components was proposed to examine the effects of stealing thunder. Arpan and Roskos-Ewoldsen s model suggests that an organization will be treated as more credible when it steals thunder than when it does not, and that higher levels of involvement with the organization will lead to stronger perceptions of the organization s credibility. The model concludes that stronger perceptions of credibility will lead to perceptions of the crisis as less severe. However, the effects of stealing thunder vary with the type of crisis, product, organization s industry, public, message type and amount of news coverage. Image Repair Discourse: USAir Crash Benoit (1997) argued that crisis communication literature tends to focus on what to do before and after a crisis, on identifying important publics and on the kinds of crises that corporations face. Less attention was given to the options available within messages about a crisis. Therefore, he developed the image restoration discourse theory. The theory s basic elements are reducing the responsibility of the accused for an action performed, and reducing the offensiveness of the act attributed to the accused. The perception of an audience matters more than reality. Benoit developed five strategies of image repair to help practitioners design messages during crises. These strategies include denial of the act or shifting the blame, evasion of responsibility, reduction of offensiveness by bolstering the audience s positive feeling toward the company, corrective action and mortification. He also offered many suggestions for crisis communicators as to prepare crisis contingency plans, analyze the crisis and the accusation before responding, identify and prioritize the relevant audiences, and repair a tarnished image by redefining the attack.
8 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 8 As the theory of image restoration provides a useful key to composing such messages, Benoit applied it to one case study: the USAir in Pittsburgh on September 8, USAir flight 427 from Chicago to Pittsburgh experienced a sudden loss of control and slammed into the ground killing all 132 passengers and crewmembers on board (National Transportation Safety Board [NTSB], 1999). Benoit studies the response of USAir in the media in the aftermath of the crash. A front-page article in the New York Times alleged that USAir was unsafe, that management policies were responsible and that the desire to save money was an important cause of the crash. The story was spread nationwide as other newspapers reprinted parts of the allegations. Faced with both a fatal crash and a severe attack by the media, USAir had to take action. The company published a series of advertisements in 47 newspapers throughout the nation in the form of full-page letters. One letter was signed by USAir s Chairman and CEO, one was from the USAir pilots, and one from USAir flight attendants. The three letters demonstrated three image repair strategies (Benoit, 1997). The first strategy is bolstering. All USAir s letters indicated that safety is the company s first priority, a value to which USAir pilots and flight attendants are fully committed. The second strategy is denial. USAir s Chairman and CEO declared that their planes were safe and their maintenance was inspected and validated by federal regulators, implicitly denying the charge that they were dangerous. The third strategy is corrective action. The Chairman s letter announced that USAir appointed Gen. Robert C. Oaks to oversee safety, an action that was welcomed by pilots and flight attendants. Another corrective action was the hiring of PRC Aviation, an external company to conduct audits of USAir s flight safety procedures.
9 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 9 Benoit evaluated the strategies that USAir has chosen. Bolstering was an appropriate strategy but not well used. The public could have been more persuaded about the mechanical safety of the airplanes if the statement came from mechanics, not flight attendants. He said that denial and corrective action were also well-chosen strategies but they don t work together sometimes. If USAir claims that its planes are safe, then corrective action is not needed. Although the corrective steps seemed to be well chosen, they do not address specific problems identified in the article such as inadequate refueling procedures, falsely certifying pilot training and inoperative warning equipment. Benoit also examined USAir s strategies in an effective discourse. He argued that while USAir s strategies were well chosen, its statements were not specific or relevant enough to be most effective. The fact that USAir s denial was implicit undermined its effectiveness. The company could have advanced forceful aspects of airline safety such as comparisons with other smaller or foreign airlines. Such comparisons might have put USAir s safety in a positive light. The fact that USAir augmented its safety claim by using an objective and expert third party was a good idea, but the Chairman s letter did not explicitly quote that third party. Because of strategies that were appropriate but not well developed in USAir s messages, the company s response was less persuasive than the Times article that included statistics, concrete examples and testimonies. Cultural Values in Crashes: Japan Air Lines versus Pan Am Crashes Crisis communication following crashes must reflect varying cultural values to be effective and sustain an airline s positive public relations (Pinsdorf, 1991). Crises reveal different cultural reactions to crash victims, survivors, admission of responsibility, and
10 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 10 the dissemination of information to the public. Communications success depends on developing responses in tune with a culture s prevailing values and modes of operation. Because airline crashes are very visible, violent and usually fatal, airline companies responses must be more sensitively tailored to the particular culture than in most corporate crises. Pinsdorf contrasts cultural differences by how Japan Air Lines (JAL) and Pan Am handled their major, tragic and widely covered crashes. When Japan Air Line flight 123 from Tokyo to Osaka smashed into a mountain on August 12, 1985, killing 520 passengers but leaving four survivors (Magnuson, 2005), JAL president Yasumoto Takagi set a model on how leaders should act in times of crises. At the memorial services, he made personal apologies, bowed low twice to the grieving families and to a wood table bearing the names of the victims, asked forgiveness, accepted responsibility and offered to resign (Pinsdorf, 1991). However, Pan Am s CEO failed to show the same level of commitment and responsibility in the aftermath of the crash of Pan Am flight 103 from London to New York on December 21, The plane was destroyed by a bomb, killing 259 passengers and crew members, in addition to 11 people on ground (Aviation Safety Network [ASN], 2007). The airline s CEO demonstrated concern but did not attend individual memorial services or redress corporate responsibility. These different responses and specifically the nonverbal cues can determine the effectiveness and audience acceptance of a crisis response.
11 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 11 Reputation and Values after Air Crashes According to Pretty (2008), air crashes have a significantly greater impact on shareholder value than reputation crisis in general. However, it is possible for an airline that acts swiftly, communicates effectively and behaves compassionately to emerge from these extreme events with an enhanced reputation and sustained value performance. Pretty identified a number of drivers that help airlines manage their reputation and value in time of crisis. One driver is specialists care. The engagement of external leading disaster recovery specialists adds value and helps management handle such extreme situations. Another driver is strong leadership by the chief executive, which should be driven by three elements: action, communication and compassion. Action entails a prompt recovery and identification of victims and their personal effects, efficient analysis of the cause of crash and resolute commitment to safety improvement and to compensation. Frequent two-way communication should provide accurate, consistent information and clear, coordinated reporting. Compassion should acknowledge and respect the magnitude of the grief, reflect honesty and sincerity of remorse and give priority at all times to the victims and their families.
12 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 12 Methodology This study is based on secondary research that looked at scholarly research on crisis communication and airline crashes. This research studied seven airplane crashes between 1985 and 2008 and examined the way each airline dealt with the crisis. As some of these articles offered a list of lessons to be learned after an air crash, this study did a thematic analysis and synthesized the findings of the research to come up with a list that identifies elements of best practices. These elements were used as criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of Air France in handling the AF447 crash.
13 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 13 Research Findings Drivers of Value Recovery: Action, Communication and Compassion Action, communication and compassion are three core drivers with which recovery of reputation and shareholder values are associated (Pretty, 2008; Arnoult, 2008). Action includes a swift, professional recovery and identification of victims, firm commitment to safety improvement, efficient analysis of the cause of the crash, and compensation to the victims families. These are all signals that an airline is in control. Accurate, well-coordinated reporting with facilitation of frequent two-way communication reduces fear and confusion among relatives trying to make sense of their grief. Robert Jensen, CEO of the disaster management company Kenyon International, says that communicating with the public and victims is essential, and that failing to do so will make people very frustrated (Arnoult, 2008). However, experts agree that managing the flow of information from the company to the public is critical to ensure it is accurate and free of speculation. Priority on the victims, survivors, and bereaved conveys an awareness and understanding of the depth of the tragedy. Pinsdorf (1991) offers a list of lessons to be learned after an air crash, on the top of which is to treat survivors compassionately and show concerns for the families. On January 27, 2001, one of three planes carrying the Oklahoma State University basketball team crashed in a snow storm near Byers, Colorado, killing all ten men on board ( Small Plane Crashes, 2001). Nestor Gonzales, manager of the OSU News Bureau, described OSU s president as a compassionate nature, after the empathy he showed to the families of the victims of the OSU plane crash (as cited in Wigley, 2003, p. 40).
14 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 14 Chief Executive Leadership In times of crises, leadership is a key. The chief executive is responsible and will be judged on his or her performance by families, employees, future customers and the markets (Pretty, 2008). A successful crisis response strategy relies on strong personal leadership by the chief executive and is driven by three elements: action, communication and compassion. While some chief executives succeed by showing responsible leadership characteristics in dealing with the crisis, others do not. After the Oklahoma State University crash, the university president James Halligan set a model of how leaders should act in crises. He opened a news conference by expressing the university s grief and speeded up the insurance processing to ensure that family members were taken care of quickly (Wigley, 2003). He made numerous one-onone visits to victims friends and families and became personally involved in the planning of the memorial services. He even pledged to take care of the children of the victims by offering them free tuition. However, the crash of Trans World Airline (TWA) brought the airlines and its management severe criticism. On July 17, 1996, TWA flight 800 from New York to Paris crashed into the Atlantic Ocean killing all 230 people on board (NTSB, 2000). TWA s CEO Jeffrey H. Erickson did not make a public appearance until the day after the crash because he was on a business trip in London. At a news conference, he was quick and refused to take questions. He even gave wrong information regarding the tail number identifying the aircraft that crashed and the year it was made (Quintanilla, 1996).
15 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 15 Cultural values and Language Barriers Any public relations campaign surrounding a disaster can succeed depending on its ability to consider the culture s prevailing values, especially in the case of an air crash. In most cases, corporations respond to crises according to their own cultures. However, an airline s response to a crash must be more sensitively tailored to the culture of all involved parties. Any organization with international operations should address these vital concerns (Pinsdorf, 1991). The cases of Japan Air Lines (JAL) versus Pan Am in terms of CEO response are perfect examples on how cultural difference plays a role in crafting responses. Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that plane crashes can be caused by failures of teamwork, communication and cross-cultural understanding ( The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes, 2009). Korean Air had a crash rate 17 times the average in 1997, but the airline managed to turn itself around so that its record was spotless since The main problem was poor communication between Western and Eastern flight crewmembers and the solution was simply to ensure that everyone on the crew speaks good English. Korean flight officers were using very differential and indirect English that did not make clear they were signaling an emergency. While Western people believe that it is the speaker s responsibility to communicate clearly, Eastern ones see that it is up to the listener to understand what is being said. Once this language barrier and culture discrepancies were identified and eliminated, the series of fatal Korean Air crashes came to an end. Martin Riecken, Lufthansa s head of corporate communication for the Americas, believes that international carriers must face the problem of bridging the gap between different languages and cultures during crises (Arnoult, 2008). British Airways, believed to have a sophisticated crisis management program, has an Emergency Procedures
16 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 16 Information Center (EPIC) that is supported by 400 volunteers trained in different disciplines and languages (Nelms, 1993). When British Airways flight 38 from Beijing to London crash landed at the edge of London Heathrow on January 17, 2008, there were no fatalities but one passenger was seriously injured and twelve others sustained minor injuries (NTSB, 2009). BA immediately brought in interpreters to communicate with the non-english speaking passengers. The media Because the media is very important in disseminating information to the public before or after a crisis, organizations should consider it a key stakeholder. For this reason, they should work on establishing open communication channels with the media (Ulmer, 2001). After a crash, saturation in news coverage goes on for days. The public witness horrifying images of death and anguish taken within minutes of a crash. The TV news reports on dramatic shots such as collapsing family members who have lost relatives in an air crash (Pinsdorf, 1991). Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board says: [ ]A lot of pressure is associated with the 24-hour news cycle and Internet reporting. Some news outlets have different standards of the web. They ll float a story on the Internet that s far less sourced than anything they d ever run in (print) or broadcast. There s also pressure for cable stations to fill 24 hours worth of airtime (immediately following a crash) because this is when they get their
17 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 17 ratings. As soon as the information becomes public, the press will try to reach the victims families. (as cited in Immediate, compassionate communication, 2000) According to David Fuscus, former vice president of communication for the Air Transport Association and president of Xenophon Strategies for public relations, the media s interest in covering airlines news has rapidly increased. With so many outlets these days, organizations are doing whatever they can to stimulate viewers (as cited in Established Plan Remains Best Weapon, 2001, p.1). In their study about airline crashes, Roger Cobb and David Primo analyze three airline accidents of USAir, ValuJet and TWA (Caldwell, 2004). They argue that the extent to which the media covers an accident is determined by the number of deaths in the accident and its proximity to metropolitan areas. Moreover, the possibility of terrorism keeps the press interested, but the failure to identify a precise cause is a flaw that prevents the improvement of airline safety. Experts versus Managers Frank McGuire, editor and publisher of Aviation Disaster Management newsletter, believes that the reason why things go wrong after an air crash is that airline managers are initially trained to deal with airplanes and passengers, rather than aftermath situations of a crash (Nelms, 1993). While managers do not have the necessary training to deal with families of the victims after a tragedy, experts do. Professional disasterrecovery experts have the sources, experience and expertise needed to respond efficiently and appropriately, whereas most managers will be facing such a situation for the first time (Pretty, 2008). By engaging specialists, senior management can focus on its core responsibility and communicate to stakeholders in a framework of expert guidance. This
18 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 18 is not a delegation of responsibility, but rather recognition of the importance of responding as humanly as possible to accidents that involve loss of lives. Managing challenging situations such as fatal air crashes requires the assistance of external specialists in disaster recovery. After the Oklahoma State University plane crash in 2001, Nestor Gonzales, manager of the OSU News Bureau, said that the university has hired a consultant to help draft a comprehensive emergency management plan that addresses specific crisis situations (Wigley, 2003). Spokesperson According to David Fuscus, carriers must establish an on-site spokesperson to act as an accurate source of information, whose first job is to disseminate pertinent information. Airline companies should work with their legal counsels on prioritizing and pre-clearing this information before a disaster takes place (as cited in Established Plan Remains Best Weapon, 2001, p. 2). The absence of a credible spokesperson from the affected parties will drive the media to approach instant experts who call television bookers and volunteer themselves as guests. Wigley (2003) highlights the importance of speaking with one voice even if there is more than one spokesperson. In the OSU crash, the university s administration did not prevent students, donors or family members from speaking to the media, but kept on repeating one clear message to everyone: OSU s commitment to taking care of the victims family members.
19 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 19 Internal Audience The airline crash literature highlighted the important role of internal audiences in supporting the company after a tragedy. The internal audiences could be the airline s employees, or even the airport or government employees who are involved in the crisis. However, such support cannot be granted unless airline companies establish a robust internal communication system. According to Jerry Hendin, a former vice president for communication for Boeing and a crisis communication consultant, airlines should use their employees as a conduit for public information after an incident and, for this reason, internal communication is equally important (as cited in Arnoult, 2008, p. 50). In the USAir crash, the letters of support by the pilots and flight attendants that the company published in 47 newspapers nationwide reflected staff solidarity and team unity in time of crisis (Benoit, 1997). At the same time, the literature has highlighted that airlines should consider the human and psychological element in all aspects of the disaster. According to aviation consultant Jeanne Ashley, airline, airport and government employees can also become traumatized after dealing with an air crash tragedy (Nelms, 1993). She says that leaving these people untreated can cause serious emotional and psychological aftershocks. One of the many bad practices that Pan Am airlines did after its air crash in Scotland was to force a flight attendant who was shaken to fly on her next flight on the London-New York route, although she asked to be excused from doing it. The airline s response to her was to fly or be fired (Nelms, 1993, p. 62).
20 AIR FRANCE RESPONSE ANALYSIS TO AF447 CRASH 20 Volunteers The former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board Peter Goelz says that most airline companies recruit and train volunteers from within the corporate family for potential crises (as cited in Immediate, compassionate communication, 2000). Those volunteers are trained to deal with different levels of grief and handle requests. Most airlines assign one volunteer to assist each family in the event of a crash. In the JAL crash, more than 400 airline employees helped grieving families with filling out insurance forms and arranging funeral services (Pinsdorf, 1991). As a smaller airline, TWA had only one trauma team of 650 employees spread across the nation, rather than regional response teams. Precious time was wasted before the company was able to get the team to New York (Chandler, 1996). Because TWA communication team was understaffed, the airline called in temporary help from Fleishman-Hillard, a giant PR firm in St. Louis (Quintanilla, 1996). However, having too many volunteers could be as problematic as having few ones. Shaw (1995) argued that airlines should control the flow of volunteers. In other words, volunteers must be screened for the requirements of the tasks to which they are assigned. As a plane crash has devastating effects on the internal culture of an airline, companies deploying volunteer emergency teams should offer counseling in place for those employees ( Immediate, compassionate communication, 2000).