Crisis Management Planning 101: Learning from Asiana’s Mistakes

By Isobel Nicholas

South Korea’s Asiana Airlines was roundly criticised in the aftermath of its response to the crash of Flight 214 on Sunday 6th July 2013 at San Francisco airport, inflicting severe damage to its reputation.  The criticism largely stems from its silence in the hours after the crash and the lack of information made available to support victims of the crash and their families as they struggled to find out what had happened and whether their loved ones were involved.

Here we review what happened and look at what lessons in crisis management planning and crisis communications can be learned.

The plane had started its journey at Incheon Airport in Seoul, and was making its final approach to San Francisco when, at 1127h, the landing gear, followed by the tail of the plane, struck the seawall that projects into San Francisco Bay.

The tail was ripped from the main section of the aircraft, propelling those passengers sat at the back of the plane onto the runway. Of the 291 passengers and 16 crew, 182 were injured and, tragically, there were three fatalities.

In the minutes that followed, spectators and Asiana passengers took to various social networking sites to post details of the incident. In fact, just 30 seconds after the official time of the crash, Google employee Krista Seiden posted the first picture on Twitter.

Krist tweet

Several other passengers and observers posted on various other social networking sites, from Facebook to Weibo (China’s dominant social site), and Boeing, manufacturer of the Boeing 777 aircraft involved, issued a well-wishing statement via Twitter two hours after the incident.

Sadly for the families of the passengers aboard Flight 214, this third party information, rumour and conjecture was all they received as the minutes, then hours, stretched out after the event.

Asiana, an airline with an established social media presence, remained completely silent, despite their Twitter followers rising dramatically from 52,500 to 58,000 in the space of a few hours and the crash trending.

Eventually, four hours after the initial impact, Asiana finally issued their first statement at 15.39pm.

Asiana First tweet

The message is heartfelt and empathetic, but could not have been briefer or less informative, offering no tangible information to those waiting or any indication of when or how that information would be forthcoming. It failed to include any contact points or signposts to suitable hubs of further information.

It wasn’t until 2043h, nine hours after the crash, that Asiana distributed its first official press release. For the friends and families of those aboard the flight, those nine hours must have seemed like an eternity.

So what should Asiana Airlines have done differently?

  1. Planning, preparation, and practise: In a high risk industry such as aviation where unfortunately, though infrequent, accidents do happen, it is inexcusable not to have a mechanism in place to activate and operate a 24/7 Helpline for victims, relatives and friends.  Asiana had not planned for any spokespeople outside Korea, and even turned down external offers of help in wake of the San Francisco crash.  To operate globally, any organisation taking its reputation seriously requires the capability to communicate globally across time zones and must put in place the necessary steps in the form of a well-rehearsed and regularly updated crisis management plan and crisis communications plan to achieve this ahead of a crisis hitting.
  2. Regulatory compliance: Reports from the current investigation by US federal transportation officials, suggests Asiana Airlines failed to meet its legal obligations to help the families of the crash victims and meet the assurances stated in its own ‘family assistance plan’ filed with the government that it would keep its emergency contact information current and post a public information number within an hour.  The first record of a publically circulated number was just over three hours after the crash but that was to an automated Asiana reservations line which is wholly inadequate in the circumstances.  The following day, the airline posted a different number, which it than changed several days later.  This strongly suggests the information contained in the plan was out of date and, indeed, the on-going investigation suggests the plan was last updated in 2004.  So, back to point 1 and the fundamental need for a well rehearsed and regularly updated crisis plan that should be exercised with key stakeholders not only to ensure it will work in practice, that the content is relevant and up to date but also meets regulatory requirements.
  3. Timeliness- and channels- of communication: The golden rule of crisis communications is to communicate, and to communicate as soon as possible even if all the facts aren’t known. Asiana Airlines has a well established social media presence to communicate with customers and potential customers promoting flight information, offers and news.  However, when Asiana’s Twitter following increased by 11.4% on the day of the crash, it wasn’t to show loyalty to the company but people seeking up to date information on the plane crash. As well as a potential source of negative comment, social media channels are an immensely powerful tool in the aftermath of a crisis to disseminate information and updates to a huge audience with great immediacy.  To use them effectively takes knowledge and understanding of social media, as well as planning, preparation and experience but, in a crisis of this kind, it is an invaluable channel of communication to reach your audiences. Its use would also have enabled the airline to take an element of control and have become the recognised point of credible information in support of the crash victims, their families, friends and more widely.  Reputationally, this would have reaped dividends. As a general rule of thumb in crisis management, if there is comment on a crisis, be it in digital, print or broadcast media, an organisation should respond using the same medium to ensure its message reaches that audience (more on using social media in a crisis).  Part of crisis management planning should include definition of the strategic approach to crisis communications and the channels to be included in the comms plan.

The Asiana crash was a tragic event but one from which organisations should learn how important it is to have regularly updated crisis management plans and crisis communication strategies in place.  It also highlights the importance of understanding the power of social media in a crisis and how to engage with it effectively to reach customers and interested parties.

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