The tragic shooting of a TSA officer and wounding of three others last Friday, November 1 at Los Angeles International Airport gives us all pause to reflect on our societal ills. But it also presents a lesson for those in the travel industry on how to effectively deal with communications during the hectic hours when a bad situation is unfolding.
Skift Travel IQ, a New York-based company that offers news and other information services to professionals in the travel industry, published a revealing article on the topic earlier this week, “How Los Angeles Airport Turned to Twitter During Friday’s Shooting Incident.”
Reporter Samantha Shankman recounts how the airport’s public relations and social media specialist Katherine Alvarado adeptly managed this micro-blogging platform, turning it into “the most watched and up-to-date news source throughout the crisis.” Before the incident, those following Alvarado’s Twitter handle @LAX_Official were accustomed to receiving just six or seven tweets a day from her.
This ballooned to more than 200 tweets on November 1 and more than 300 the following day, providing news updates, retweets from affected airlines along with replies to delayed passengers and everyone else. All of this was sandwiched in-between her more traditional PR duties in such a situation – emails to the press, interviews, getting the facts from law enforcement on the ground and coordinating with airline and airport management. During two press conferences, both the airport’s chief of police and executive director referred to Alvarado’s Twitter feed as “the official outlet for news and updates.”
Interestingly, it was reported that the airport’s established crisis communications plan did not consider using social media. Alvarado realized that she would need to retool LAX’s communications strategy for this burgeoning situation on the fly.
That's a telling indication of how social media, and particularly Twitter, has become the go-to tool for real time delivery of factual information during a crisis.
There will be a lot of second-guessing and finger pointing regarding the emergency response to the LAX shootings, as reported in this Los Angeles Times article, but @LAX_Official proved to be a bright spot, one that can provide tour and cruise ship operators with some valuable lessons.
Basic Guidelines for Crisis Media Management
Some of the following recommendations seem obvious. Surprisingly, however, there are many travel companies that do not have basic protocols in place for communicating with various stakeholders – press, employees, families of travelers, or the general public – when something goes wrong.
1. Develop a crisis media plan at your company.
Many tour operators – and all the cruise lines that I'm familiar with – have emergency response plans in place to respond to a crisis in the field or at sea. But some travel companies might not consider media handling as an integral part of this plan. They should. The LAX incident also demonstrates that proactive use of social media can be an effective component of crisis media plans.
2. Have a primary point person in place for crisis communications.
Preferably this is someone already familiar with dealing with the media. His or her function is to get the facts from a captain aboard ship or tour leader in the field (or from their boss), distill them to the essentials, and relay what is appropriate to stakeholders.
3. Make a master spreadsheet of your key stakeholders.
The lists should be both internal to your company and external – e.g. management, employees, major shareholders, media, top customers, relevant trade associations, critical suppliers, etc. – and you should be prepared to share information with them as soon as possible. Have their contact information – phone numbers and email addresses – on a spreadsheet ready to go. Put yourself in their shoes; consider their perspective and what they expect to hear. Plan to make as much available information public as long as it does not involve security or confidentiality issues.
4. Prepare a basic “holding statement” ahead of time.
This can be used to respond in the early minutes to phone calls or emails from the press or other stakeholders. The statement can be something as simple as “We’ve had a report of [an incident / situation] and are in the process of collecting the facts. Your call is important, and if you provide me with your contact details and deadline, I will have the most appropriate person return your call as quickly as possible.” **
Alvarado used this same approach in an early tweet as the shooting and emergency response were first unfolding – “There is an incident underway at LAX. Law enforcement is on the scene. More information to follow.” Incredibly, this simple message was re-tweeted 1,102 times, showing the power of this micro-blog. Even though few details were conveyed, it put @LAX_Official in the forefront as the purveyor of factual information and encouraged the media and other concerned stakeholders to rely on the feed as the situation developed further.
Of course, there is value in cultivating relationships with journalists beforehand. This doesn’t guarantee favorable coverage, but it does help ensure that they will contact you first for your side of the story.
5. Twitter is a great catalyst, but it has limitations.
Because of the 140-character limit of a tweet, it can’t be expected to carry the load in providing detailed information or instructions. But it can readily offer a link to the company’s website or Facebook page where there is adequate room for more expansive news, press releases, photos and fact sheets that can be easily downloaded.
6. Depending on the nature of the crisis, subsequent press updates should:
- Express concern;
- State the actions underway; and
- Commit to additional communications and ensuring that lessons will be learned.
Be prepared to accept and acknowledge responsibility for the outcome as appropriate and within legal parameters. Remember that accuracy and consistency are critical in all communications.
7. Be clear on your objectives and develop key messages.
Once established, these can be conveyed and even retweeted by key employees. The priority in dealing with issues in your communications should be: people first, then environment and, finally, assets.
Alvarado's quick thinking and actions clearly showed that her eye was on people first. She said her goal was to answer every tweet or comment that came through the airport’s Facebook account. “At the end of the day, people want to know that they’re being heard, and that’s what I was trying to convey.”
Reporter Shankman concludes her article by noting that Alvarado’s dedication to helping passengers and providing timely updates did not go unnoticed. Many “thank you” tweets were sent her way in the days that followed by appreciative followers of @LAX_Official.
In my view, this story demonstrates the value of social media in building a community and providing a solid footing for public relations outreach. In this particular case, the community of concerned and involved stakeholders was temporary, congregating and uniting in their desire for accurate information during a terrible ordeal. But on those first two days of November 2013, it was an important community nonetheless.
Our hats off to Katherine Alvarado for her quick thinking and dedication to putting her stakeholders first.
** Many of these guidelines on creating a crisis media management plan are taken directly from the excellent recommendations and materials provided by Kim Barbero, principal of Carah Worldwide Consulting, Inc. I had the good fortune to work with Kim in setting up an association-wide crisis media plan while I was director of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO). Some excellent resources can be freely downloaded from the Carah Worldwide website. Better yet, contact Kim for a consultation or presentation, and tell her Steve sent you.