In today’s world, aviation plays a pivotal role in providing extremely fast transportation that, in practical terms, has the effect of “shrinking the distances” between even the remotest points of the Earth. However, the potentially devastating effect of aircraft accidents has served as a powerful stimulus to develop crisis management among airline companies (Boin et al. 2017). One crisis management issue in the contemporary air travel industry is related to information.
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Nowadays, the ubiquitous presence of social media allows people to quickly spread information before an official version is available, a situation that might prompt rumors or misinterpretations and lead to serious consequences. Thus, it is paramount to implement methods for addressing informational issues in the case of an aircraft emergency. Therefore, this paper considers the general role that social media might play in a crisis or emergency in the airline industry and describes methods that could be used to deal with the potential adverse outcomes of the use of social media.
The Role of Social Media in Aviation Accidents and Emergencies
Nowadays, the majority of people from all over the world use at least one and more often several types of social media daily to keep in touch with relatives, friends, and colleagues and share their most recent thoughts and news. Also, social media is now increasingly used for business purposes (National Research Council 2013; Resnyansky 2014). Furthermore, it should be stressed that individuals often access the internet using smartphones and similar mobile devices, meaning they can read and post to their social media accounts from almost anywhere. In the case of airline travel, social media can often be accessed from airplanes as it is quite common for aviation companies nowadays to provide their passengers with the opportunity to use Wi-Fi while flying (International Air Transport Association 2016).
The ubiquity of social media use and the ability for airline passengers to communicate en route mean that the news about almost any crisis or emergency about a flight is virtually certain to be quickly made public via posts of the passengers. Any other individuals who are involved in any manner in that crisis or emergency can post to social media, as well. As a further complication, once the information has been posted on social media, it is usually reposted by people who are social media “friends” of the authors of the original messages or who simply follow them; this often leads to an exponential surge of reposts (Cohn 2014; Resnyansky 2014).
For example, on 6 July 2013, an Asiana Airlines Flight 2014 crash-landed on its way to San Francisco. Many of the surviving passengers started taking photos of the crash site. A tweet of one such image was retweeted almost 33,000 times (Figure 1), becoming one of the main sources of information about the fact that the accident had occurred (Cohn 2014).
This means that non-official information about a flight-related crisis or emergency usually reaches the public before the airline company involved has the chance to inform the public and disseminate official information. It is also important to observe that in the event of a terrorist attack, the surge of posts on social media often lends itself to transmitting the message that the terrorists wanted to communicate to society (Price & Forrest 2016).
This means that sensitive information (or misinformation), which could pose a potential danger, can be published as well. For instance, a false alarm about a bomb that is supposedly hidden somewhere can cause panic, hinder evacuation and search procedures and so on; rumors about the cause of the accident might harm not only the reputation of the company but also some of its employees in particular (Dijkmans, Kerkhof & Beukeboom 2015). Consequently, if an airline company does not respond quickly, rumors and speculation might take over the informational space (Wensveen 2015), leaving the company in a weak position, even to the point of ruining its future business.
All of this means that, apart from the necessity of dealing with the problem, the airline company immediately needs to devote a considerable amount of attention to providing the public with information. This data would include what the public needed to know about the ongoing process of addressing the emergency. Also, the company will inevitably have to respond to requests coming from friends, relatives, colleagues, and others connected to the flight’s passengers and who may be inquiring about the fate of these passengers (Transit Cooperative Research Program 2012).
It is also pivotal to mitigate or prevent the possible adverse consequences that may result from misinformation. If an air travel company does not adequately respond to these requests and inquiries, it is highly likely to cause considerable harm to the reputation of that enterprise, severely undermining its future activities (Dijkmans et al. 2015).
Worry on the part of the passengers and their friends and acquaintances is to be expected, but should this worry be allowed to become a frustration, people may lose their trust in the airline company. Another related problem is that society may often demand that the flight company provide information that is not available at the moment – for instance, details about the emergency or information about survivors.
Thus, it is clear that an appropriate informational response to an emergency is pivotal if an airline company is to preserve its reputation and continue its existence after a serious accident (Dijkmans, Kerkhof & Beukeboom 2015). Several cases serve as examples to demonstrate this point. For instance, in the case of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 (Kuala Lumpur – Beijing), in which the aircraft disappeared on 8 March 2014 (Wensveen 2015, p. 318), state authorities took over the media channels, providing information to the public about the ongoing investigation. Later, the company was blamed for “miscommunication”, taking a hit to their reputation, even though Malaysia Airlines did not have much chance to communicate their point of view about the accident (International Air Transport Association 2016).
On the other hand, when suicide bombings took place in Brussels Airport on 22 March 2016 (Figure 2), tens of individuals were killed and more than 300 were injured, the airport was temporarily closed and its operations were moved (BBC News 2016; International Air Transport Association 2016). In this case, the airport maintained communication with its clients, mainly via online platforms. Updates about the case were regularly posted, and the response system worked 24/7, providing answers to nearly 5,000 customer inquiries daily. The organization managed to preserve its excellent reputation, and July 2016, only 4 months after the suicide bombings, was recorded as the second busiest July in the history of the Brussels Airport (International Air Transport Association 2016).
This means that it is of paramount importance for flight companies today to be prepared to address any crisis or emergency, to mitigate its effects but also to be ready to respond to the social resonance of the event. A company can do this by providing the public with needed information or adequately explaining any lack of information and showing support for those whose friends or relatives might have been adversely affected by the emergency (Grundy & Moxon 2013).
Therefore, it should be concluded that companies in the air travel industry need to develop and introduce procedures and protocols and provide instruction for their personnel on how to act in case of a crisis and emergency. This would include not just procedures for addressing the crisis itself, but how to satisfy people’s need for facts and updates as a result of the spread of information about the problem in question via social media.
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It should be stressed that since social media, being a recent phenomenon, became widespread only in the past few years (Silvius 2016), very little research literature related to the topic in question exists, and relatively few theoretical investigations of the issue have been carried out. However, several studies, along with documents from national and international aviation organizations such as the International Air Transport Association (2016), can provide highly useful recommendations for addressing the problem of mitigating possible adverse influences of social media on the aviation industry.
Informational Response Planning for an Air Company Emergency
Due to the high potential for harm to aviation companies and because of the possible adverse consequences of the spread of information about a crisis or emergency in aviation, air companies need to develop methods and procedures to quickly organize, coordinate and maintain informational support for responding to an emergency or crisis, as well as to form mechanisms that would permit these actions (International Air Transport Association 2016). Several steps can be recommended that aim at preparing an air company for such a situation, and these steps are described below.
To prepare for emergency response in terms of informational support, it is recommended to identify which types of social media and similar communication channels are already being used by those associated with the company. In particular, it is necessary to gather information about which departments use which social media for what purposes and who directs these efforts (International Air Transport Association 2016).
This might not be a simple task as flight companies are large enterprises, often having operations situated in numerous countries or regions (Pan, Pan & Leidner 2012). However, it is critical to lay the groundwork to be able to coordinate efforts aimed at providing informational support in response to an emergency or an accident. Even though only one part may be involved in an emergency, the whole company will likely be affected if a severe emergency takes place. Therefore, coordinating all the reactions of the air travel organization is paramount, and these reactions must be consistent. Thus, control of social media communications might be temporarily transferred to a specifically designated emergency information team (International Air Transport Association 2016).
Furthermore, it also becomes clear that the company should formulate crisis communications plans, as well as forming teams whose members would coordinate the informational efforts of the company and take part in maintaining outgoing communication (Bregman & Watkins 2014).
It is vital to create a crisis communications plan to regulate the general direction of external communication of the organization during a crisis (a crisis communication policy), as well as contain more specific directions that would allow for establishing and maintaining this communication. To begin, the plan should include such elements as a description of a body responsible for external communication with the community and a definition of its relationship with the team responsible for crisis management. The plan should also include a description of the roles within the crisis communication team and the potential candidates for these roles (names or positions).
As a part of this endeavor, the company would develop checklists that would outline what every representative of the communication team should do, along with protocols to regulate the coordination of all communication channels, ensuring that the information they supply for all the audiences is consistent. Planning for emergency communication would involve templates for possible initial statements related to all potential types of emergencies (e.g. accidents, diversions, disruptions of service, hijacking) and designed to be usable as soon as initial information about an accident is confirmed. Lastly, the company would maintain databases that would include e-mails and telephone numbers of both internal and external contacts such as media outlets or online service providers (International Air Transport Association 2016).
The policy should also prescribe the formation of a crisis communication team responsible for developing and implementing a communication strategy for a particular emergency as well as making sure that fast and effectual communication can be initiated and maintained by the organization. According to the International Air Transport Association (2016, pp. 29-31), such a team needs to include several individuals, namely:
- communication representative for the team responsible for the management of the crisis, who would supply recommendations about crisis communication to team members, the top managers of the company and both internal and external stakeholders;
- communication team leader, whose duties would encompass the general management of the communication team;
- editorial writer, who would create drafts of any written materials which would later be released by the aviation company in general and the spokespeople of this organization in particular;
- manager of online communication efforts, who would oversee and manage the communication of the business via its online channels and social media outlets, also ensuring that this communication is delivered to a variety of audiences promptly;
- manager of internal communications, who would make sure that all external statements and inquiries reaching the organization would be given to the employees via internal channels to supply these workers with guidance for appropriately responding to these external inquiries;
- international coordinator, who would ensure that appropriate contact required for supplying overseas representatives of the company such as officers and PR agencies with updates about the emergency in question is maintained;
- coordinator for monitoring the media, who would make sure that all relevant and/or notable information published in all types of media (including social media) is reported to the rest of the crisis communication team as well as to the team responsible for managing the crisis;
- manager for a media inquiry, who would supervise the group of employees receiving incoming calls via various types of media and make sure that these employees are supplied with relevant information and updates;
- communication representative(s) for the on-site team, who would travel to the site where the crisis or emergency has taken place, coordinate local communication activities, and make sure that the relevant information is passed to the rest of the crisis communication team.
An appropriately formed crisis communication team can provide the capacity to establish and maintain appropriate communication both inside the company and with external stakeholders. The team should provide for mitigating the effects of informational surges and rumors coming from social media outlets by providing adequate levels of responsiveness on the part of the air company to the public, as well as providing the latter with confirmed information related to the emergency in question (Resnyansky 2014).
It addition, it can be recommended to create a “dark” version of the official website of the air company that could be used to replace the usual version. This alternate website would contain the news related to the emergency, as well as a link to the usual version of the website for the clients who need to access the usual information about the air company’s activities such as flight schedules (International Air Transport Association 2016).
This “dark” version could be turned on in serious situations, for example, in an emergency involving loss of life and/or heavy damage or injuries, and it would represent the air company’s sorrow for those deceased due to the accident. This website should be styled in a manner that corresponds to the somber subject matter: for instance, there would be no colorful pictures nor smiling faces, and the company logotype might be greyed-out (International Air Transport Association 2016). It should also include an official statement by the company’s representative/spokesperson as well as necessary contact information for those individuals and organizations wishing to obtain more information about the accident, its victims and survivors, the ongoing emergency response procedures, and other pertinent information.
On the whole, any air company ought to carry out a thorough preparation to be ready to provide an adequate response to the inevitable external inquiries about an aviation crisis or accident (Pan, Pan & Leidner 2012). Although the need for immediate informational feedback may have been less urgent before the emergence of internet technologies, nowadays, when social media outlets allow for rapid spreading of information – including non-confirmed information and misinformation – and individuals wish to obtain responses to their inquiries as quickly as possible, it is critical to be able to respond rapidly to the external informational requests not only to preserve a company’s reputation but also potentially to avert possible further emergencies and dangers (Dijkmans et al. 2015).
Crisis Management: Informational Response to an Air Company Emergency
When an adverse situation such as a crisis or emergency takes place in aviation, the flight company, apart from responding to the event, should also activate predetermined protocols and make use of planning efforts like those described in the previous section of this paper to address the informational challenge related to the use of social media by the passengers and their online friends (National Research Council 2013).
The crisis communication team, as defined by the emergency policies, protocols, and response plans, should gather and begin working immediately. All external communication channels should be monitored by the crisis communication team to avoid inconsistencies related to the company’s position. The channels for which different departments of the organization are responsible (for instance, the company’s social media accounts may be overseen by the public relations department) should also be temporarily transferred to the crisis communication team (International Air Transport Association 2016).
It is necessary to start responding to external inquiries related to the accident promptly. In particular, the air company might wish to use social media and the official company website to announce that an investigation has been started and efforts are being taken to address the emergency or crisis and to inform the audience that official information will be provided shortly. For this purpose, the previously prepared template could be implemented.
Once official information arrives, it should immediately be posted on the company’s website and in its social media accounts. In the event of fatalities or another tragic outcome, a decision needs to be made to activate the “dark” version of the website to express sorrow regarding the accident that took place. As previously noted, colorful, happy or amusing elements on the website should be temporarily removed and the traditional logotype of the organization should be replaced with a “greyed out” version or a similar expression of sympathy and distress (International Air Transport Association 2016). Also, a spokesperson for the organization such as the company’s CEO should make an official statement expressing regret, briefly elaborating the situation, and declaring that efforts are being made to deal with the emergency, help those who require assistance and avoid exacerbation of the situation.
It is also paramount to respond to inquiries and posts on the air company’s social media accounts (Resnyansky 2014). The information about the accident in question that appears in any type of sources (including news websites, television, and social media) must be constantly monitored; in certain cases, responses may be required (International Air Transport Association 2016). The employees of the company also need to be warned not to post information that would conflict with the official position of the organization, or that would contain any unconfirmed information related to the emergency. Simultaneously, it is recommended that the air company should share information about current unknowns so that it would not be later accused of non-transparency (Wensveen 2015, p. 318).
It is noteworthy that once the situation is resolved, the moment will come when it is appropriate to return to the regular version of the website and remove the logotypes expressing regret. This moment should be agreed upon within the company so that different departments do not return to “business as usual” when other parts of the organization are still officially in grief (International Air Transport Association 2016).
Also, it is pivotal to know what type of information should not be distributed to the general population. The International Air Transport Association (2016, p. 19) supplies a list of items that an air company needs to withhold while communicating with external audiences, including:
- the structure of the planned investigation and its main foci;
- information pertaining to the maintenance of the facilities and aircraft;
- the possible (but unconfirmed) reasons why an emergency took place;
- the manner in which the airplane malfunctioned and the possible conclusions that may be made about related aircraft on this basis;
- information related to crucial pieces of evidence such as cockpit voice recorders and the information from the “black box”;
- the actions of the flight crew that preceded the emergency or possible actions aimed at prevention that were not taken;
- the possible connection between training or professionalism of the crew/personnel and the emergency;
- the possibility that a mistake occurred on the part of the pilot or any other member of the crew or staff;
- the probability that something else ought to be blamed for the accident;
- the role that air traffic control or weather played in the accident
- the condition of the remains of the humans who perished due to the accident or the possible ways to be employed to identify them.
These rather controversial issues may not only harm the reputation of the company (Dijkmans, Kerkhof & Beukeboom 2015) but also might cause rumors, harm or even danger to its particular employees; for instance, a crew member or an air traffic controller who might be partially responsible for the accident might become a victim of later revenge.
Thus, an appropriate reaction to an accident should include an informational response, which is paramount in the age of social media (Dijkmans et al. 2015) and may be crucial for the future existence and functioning of the airline company related to the accident.
On the whole, in an aircraft emergency or crisis, social media might become a source of misinformation or rumors, potentially causing harm to the airline organization or certain stakeholders. Therefore, air companies should prepare in advance to address informational issues in case an emergency occurs and act swiftly and in a coordinated manner if an untoward event takes place.
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