PR in the Unfriendly Skies: Pinnacle Air vs. Air France

As someone who flies far more frequently than most, the recent spate of airline disasters has, needless to say, captured my attention. Within days of both the Air France disaster and the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, I was on the same type of aircraft, wondering whether I should have any faith whatsoever in the assertions of airline CEOs. The fact that I am far from the only passenger who is questioning the safety of this mode of transportation has left the entire airline industry with a monumental image crisis.

The reality is that we don’t experience a high volume of airline disasters in a short period of time; having seen several in recent months, the 24/7 news types (and Congress) have gone into overdrive, scaring us with endless stories about the dangers of air travel. (In reality, statistics prove year after year that air travel is exponentially safer than driving to destinations.)

The good news is that most airlines’ PR departments have learned valuable crisis communications lessons from prior disasters. The bad news is that in a crisis, those lessons are often forgotten, prompting careless and impulsive reactions from companies and spokespeople.

Clearly the folks at Pinnacle Air, parent company of Buffalo flight operator Colgan Air, were napping or out for a beer when crisis communications lessons were handed out.

Compared to most airlines, they’ve been amazingly incommunicado since the disaster happened. Other than the initial standard “We are saddened by this tragedy” statements, there have been a string of “not available for comments” in subsequent stories and investigations about the missteps that led up to the crash.

This has further led to a full-bore congressional investigation, with numerous senators and congressman calling for further regulations of the regional air carrier industry, especially when unsettling details emerged during a public hearing held in May.

Specifically, the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation revealed that the captain and co-pilot of the Buffalo-bound plane may have been suffering from fatigue during the doomed flight, which could explain the fundamental errors they made in the moments leading up to the crash. If that, indeed, was a contributing factor, the investigation revealed that many of Colgan’s pilots could be at risk of flying while fatigued, as 93 of the 137 pilots who work out of Newark airport commute to work by air—sometimes from as far as the West coast.

Meanwhile, Air France has had its share of missteps in the wake of its Flight 447 crash into the Atlantic Ocean, but for the most part the negative coverage has focused more on Airbus, the equipment manufacturer, than on the carrier itself.

However, privacy concerns dictated that the airline was not to release the passenger list, which was eventually leaked to the media, revealing the presence of two people who were allegedly on a French terrorist list.

The blogosphere was immediately filled with an even wider array of conspiracy theories than usual, which, as of this writing, Air France and the French government are still trying to put to rest. PRN


Katie Paine is the CEO of KDPaine & Partners. She can be reached at

Pinnacle Air

Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage F The crisis was perpetuated by the release of the transcript of cockpit conversations and subsequent calls for new regulations on regional carriers. When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it seems to go on forever, but invariably most do wind down. However, if Congress gets involved, be prepared for a second and third round of nights in your war room.
Effectiveness of spokespeople C The CEO pretty much handed the spokesperson’s reins over to the company’s vice president of safety, Daniel Morgan, as soon as he could. Using an alternative spokesperson, such as an Air Safety expert, is generally a good idea, but you need to make sure he/she is trained, quotable and available.
Communication of key messages D The CEO communicated the compassion message just fine, but the quotes from Morgan were distinctly lacking in reassurance. You need to have key messages ready, not just on the day of a crisis, but for subsequent follow-up stories, like congressional investigations.
Management of negative messages F By not saying much at all, Pinnacle left the communications to Congress and other airline experts, all of whom seemed to think that Pinnacle’s screening and training were to blame for the crash. Just because you say you’re not available for comment doesn’t mean that comments won’t be made. All you’re doing is leaving the door open for everyone from your competition to Congress to drive the messages.
Impact on customers D Thanks to congressional focus on regional air traffic safety, the news is still full of reports of lax discipline and overtired pilots on regional air carriers. I know I’m now checking to see who is really operating the airplane; if it’s Colgan Air, I make other travel arrangements. Just because your brand is separated from the crisis by multiple layers of ownership doesn’t mean that smart consumers in an era of Twitter and blogs won’t make the connection.
Overall score D It really wasn’t as much Pinnacle’s poor communications as it was their lax training and screening standards. The biggest damage was probably to the regional air carrier industry’s reputation, as more people, including Congress, became aware of the vast difference in safety standards between big and small carriers. Actions will always shape reputation to a much greater degree than words ever will.

Air France

Criteria Grade Comments Advice
Extent of coverage F Like the Buffalo crash, the prolonged investigation into the cause of Flight 447’s disappearance is prolonging coverage long past most crises’ lifespan. The mysteriousness of the story has further fueled speculation, media coverage and conspiracy theories. In these times when citizen journalists and bloggers are frequently seen as the most reliable sources in a crisis, you need to be prepared for every manner of conspiracy theory and speculation. If there’s bad news hidden under a rock in your reputation, someone will find it.
Effectiveness of spokespeople B Air France’s spokespeople were visible, available and cooperative, which is the most the media can hope for. Availability and training really paid off.
Communication of key messages C With frequent press briefings and regular updates with traditional media, Air France has done most of the right things to get their messages out. However, in social media they get an F for their relative absence. A Twitter account goes a long way toward defusing conspiracy theories and keeping friends and family informed.
Management of negative messages A Due to the mysterious nature of the crash, much of the negative messaging has been focused on Airbus, the plane’s manufacturer. If you can get help during the crisis from another organization’s crisis communications team, that’s great; just make sure that you’re all on the same page from day one.
Impact on customers B The crash happened at the start of the busy summer vacation season, so while people may have been nervous, thus far there has been little impact either on Air France or any other carrier. Crises left unchecked can easily impact your entire industry. Look to industry groups to help defuse the negatives and get your messages out.
Overall score B An unfolding ongoing crisis like the Air France 447 crash clearly demonstrates the need for all organizations to have a solid and sophisticated crisis team that is ready to take action at a moment’s notice. The ultimate lesson is that today’s 24/7 news environment, coupled with social media’s ability to disseminate information in real time, cause crises to last longer and to go in directions you probably never envisioned.