Communicating properly when in crisis

The recent US-Bangla Airlines plane crash in Nepal has given a rise to a few communication-related questions. It was obvious that the US-Bangla Airlines management was taken aback by the accident, as they struggled with what to say to the media, the relatives of the crash victims, and to the national and international stakeholders.

The fact that they didn’t have a crisis-time communication plan was quite clear. They also didn’t have a company spokesperson who would speak on behalf of the company to the press.

On the other hand, the journalists covering the accident were seen to have crowded at the US-Bangla Airlines head office to get information.

In hindsight, I believe, the journalists shouldn’t have flocked to the headquarters like they did. Instead, they should have allowed the US-Bangla Airlines management the time to tackle the aftermath of an accident first of its kind, in terms of scale. 

It was clear that the management was in an awry state. Observing this situation, what Bangladesh’s civil aviation authority could have done was to nominate a spokesperson on their behalf. However, the civil aviation authorities were also seen not to have any crisis-time communication plan.

Since the airline industry is one of the most sensitive ones and prone to various types of crises, the need for a detailed crisis-time communication plan is a immense. Most of the aviation companies across the world try to keep an active crisis communication plan. They always maintain a crisis-time plan as they understand the damage an accident/crisis may cause to its reputation.

Aviation companies must have a communication team. The members of top management can also be members of the communication team. The CEO him/herself can act as the spokesperson of the company, but there has to be a spokesperson.

During an airline crisis, internal communication is the top priority — as almost all the employees of the company become engaged to mitigate the crisis and they must know the facts of the incident or the accident. Unless they know what actually happened, it would be difficult for them to salvage the situation.

There has to be a communication plan for the external stakeholders such as the government, the journalists, as well as the customers. In the case of an airline company, it is the customers who need to be given a clear picture of what happened. If the company fails to provide credible facts to the customers who have already planned their travel schedule with the respective airliner, this might risk the company losing their business in the future. There are many examples of airline companies going out of business because they failed to properly disseminate information among the customers.

The government also needs to be kept properly informed because ultimately it is the government who would deal with the aftermath of such an accident or crisis. And, otherwise, it may not be very easy for the government to solve the crisis in a holistic manner.

Enter social media

Acquiring and providing information on social media has become commonplace these days. In the case of US-Bangla Airlines crash, many were seen providing real-time updates from Kathmandu.

These days, people have mobile phones and they post all kinds of videos on social media, on which the company does not have any control over.

Most of the companies in Bangladesh don’t have any strategy or plan on how to use social media as a communication tool. Social media becomes critical during a crisis, because everyone starts speculating. This media is an ocean of both correct and incorrect information. Therefore, it is highly imperative that a company prone to crisis has a social media strategy in place. Social media cannot be dealt with in a piecemeal basis — one needs to be very comprehensive when it comes to this.

In the case of the Kathmandu crash, we have seen a lack of proper channels in order to provide adequate information to the people, it created confusion and gave rise to all sorts of speculation. In retrospect, I think what US-Bangla Airlines could have done as soon as the crisis happened was to issue a press handout to the media within 15 minutes of the accident. They should also have given a regular update, say an hourly update, to the media in form of press statements.

This is when the communication team would have needed the management support direly. Unless the team gets a clear picture of what the management would want to say, it wouldn’t be possible for them to utilize all the channels of communication properly.

Overcoming a crisis needs a multifaceted approach and companies in Bangladesh can take the case of US-Bangla Airlines as what to be wary of and plan their crisis-time communication strategy accordingly.

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