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Prepare for crisis communications before a crisisPrepare for crisis communications before a crisis

It’s a harsh reality that at some point in the life cycle of your flight school there will be some form of a crisis. It may be as benign as a publication relations crisis having to do with a lease, or as sobering as a fatal accident involving one of your students or instructors.

Because of this, it’s vital to have a full crisis communications plan in place well before you actually experience the crisis. While it may be beneficial for larger schools to hire a consultant who is an expert in the area of crisis communications, most schools will have no trouble putting together a plan that works for their situation.

Just like a marketing plan, a flight plan, or a business plan, the crisis communication plan must be multi-layered and speak to a variety of different audiences. Here are some considerations:

Control your message: The biggest overriding idea in crisis communications is to control your message. In this day of Twitter, Web forums, and 24-hour news, saying “No comment” to anyone is not a communications plan. It’s an avoidance plan, and people see it that way. In the court of public opinion, saying, “No comment” is akin to admitting guilt. Although a small-town blog, fringe news element, or local activist may seem not worth the justification, it’s a bad idea to ignore any audience.

“Control your message” also means reaching out to your local newspaper’s editorial board long before a crisis happens to cement a relationship. It means getting involved in the chamber of commerce and knowing local elected leaders. Basically it means being a respected part of the local community, which increases your credibility during tough times.

Identify designated speakers: Make it clear to all employees at the school that only certain people are allowed to speak to the media, elected officials, and the airport board. Obviously it’s more than OK for everyone to create friendships, but when it’s time to do business or make a statement, you as the owner or manager are probably the right person to be doing the talking.

Know your audiences: Early in the process, identify which organizations or groups of people need to be involved in each type of crisis. Have a list of people to reach out to after an accident. Know what you’re going to say before making the call. Having your customer service representative at the desk call the local FSDO after a wingtip hits a hangar is probably not in your best interest. But you notifying the NTSB and the airport manager after a fatal accident probably is. Don’t forget to include employees, customers, the FAA, local elected officials, the media, and anyone you deem appropriate into your plan.

Brief the staff: One of the most important, yet most overlooked audiences in a crisis is your employees. Make it a clear and vital part of your plan to include a staff communications piece. If it’s a serious crisis, make it in person.

Brief your customers: Just because one airplane ran off the runway with one student in it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your other students as well. Control your message with your other customers, and include a communications piece that is transparent, positive when appropriate, and informative. Don’t leave your customers thinking your airplanes, policies, or instructors are unsafe.

Know how others will perceive you: Before you meet with a reporter after an accident, take a few minutes to image what preconceived notion of aviation others in the community will bring to the story as they read it. The fact that you know your school is safe doesn’t mean everyone in the community actually assumes this as they read about aviation. Far from it. Don’t be flip about serious circumstances (“Oh, it’s only our first accident in 10 years”), and do your best to make sure that what you say can’t be taken out of context.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a lot of information about disaster preparedness, including what to include and consider in a crisis communications plan. Find it here.

Ian J. Twombly

Ian J. Twombly

"Flight Training" Editor
AOPA Pilot and Flight Training Editor Ian J. Twombly joined AOPA in 2003 and is an instrument flight instructor.

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