PR Expert Offers Best Practices for Aviation Business Crisis Communications

Voice, timing, and transparency are key elements for your COVID-19 public relations.

With very rare exceptions right now, aviation businesses large and small are feeling the immediate financial impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic currently upon us. For large multi-national corporations with deep reserves, to sole proprietorships and mid-size companies, the blistering damage to bottom lines is excruciating, affecting employees, the public, and most importantly to these businesses, their customer base.

In crisis times like these, precise, effective and lightning-fast communications with critical audiences take on a new level of importance, coming just as many companies are not prepared to handle such important releases. Your aviation business may be in full-on survival mode, but your customers still need to know the facts by reading actionable, truthful information that is disseminated quickly.

For the largest of corporations, a trained internal crisis management team may already be on top of these critical releases, or this task may be handled by an outsourced public relations firm. For the many thousands of aviation businesses that do not have such in-house communications teams or a PR firm on speed dial, there are several important elements to a crisis communications strategy that need to be implemented immediately, says Kelli Matthews, a Senior Instructor, Public Relations at the University of Oregon’s (UO) School of Journalism and Communications, and also Managing Director of Verve Northwest Communications.

Matthews has more than 15 years of crisis management experience primarily in the wildland firefighting industry, and regularly teaches UO students the many intricacies of communicating while in crisis mode. “Don’t sugar coat things to try to save people’s feelings,” Matthews said. “You need to be as clear and transparent as you can be. Don’t speculate. We don’t know how long this will last. To pretend you do is a disservice to your audiences. You want to be empathetic and compassionate, not doom and gloom, but you also want to be clear.” Matthews also strongly emphasized the need to communicate with empathy for those affected directly (are sick, have lost jobs, or need to care for loved ones), and for employees. “Everyone is scared, confused and lots of people are having a very hard time. Even if your staff has been relatively unaffected, they know people who have been devastated,” she added.

When it comes to the timing of crisis communications, the biggest mistake companies make, Matthews said, is not communicating fast enough. “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you. Lack of information creates a vacuum that fills with rumor, speculation, and innuendo. Tell things first, tell it fast and tell people what you’re going to do about it. Provide clear directive for how often you’ll communicate and how people can get more info,” she said. Additionally, Matthews advises releasing information as fast as possible. “More than six hours and you’re going to be behind the curve. A crisis plan is helpful because you have a team ready to go, a clear chain of command and decision-making process, and often some boilerplate/holding statements that you can get out quickly,” she said.

Once you’ve identified the need to communicate in a crisis, Matthews made it clear who needs to speak for the company. “Rarely if ever should it be the marketing person. In outbound communications like press releases or statements, it’s always the CEO or other key leadership (such as the owner or president). If it’s for media interviews, that’s still the best-case scenario, but a PR or chief communications officer could substitute if needed. Whomever it is should be trained in how to do media interviews. It is key to have a clear understanding of who you’re communicating to and to provide thoughtful messaging for those audiences. Employees are a different audience than suppliers, who need something different than customers. This isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ situation,” she said.

Once the release has been written and approved for distribution, the channels you use to get your word out depend on who you’re talking to. “If you don’t have a crisis plan and you’re figuring it out as you go, then use the infrastructure and communication channels you already have,” she advises. For many aviation businesses and flight schools, your customer email list or distribution managed through online scheduling programs is the fastest way to reach out.

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