US Airways Flight 1549 Crash & Crisis Communications

By Gerard Braud

From a crisis communications perspective, I’ve put together a quick score card for you to learn from as we watch the events of US Airways flight 1549 unfold.

My top rules in crisis communications is to communicate within one hour with the media, your employees and other key audiences, such as passengers, their families, and future passengers.

U.S. Air gets relatively good marks for speed of communications. The CEO made a public statement early, although I don’t think he made his statement in one hour or less. I’d suggest a PR person make the first public statement, while the CEO manages the crisis at hand. Then, before the start of the second hour, an executive should become the spokesperson for the second briefing. By the second briefing a few questions should be taken and answered.

As for how the first statement was presented, the CEO covered what he knew up to that point and then left without taking questions from the media. That’s exactly what should be done.

Too many organizations wait until they know far more details before they speak. A simple fill-in-the-blank template is all you need for your first announcement. (You can download a free copy of such a template at  Look for instructions in the right margin.)

Making a statement early and in person has a strong psychological impact on your audience. It says you are open and forthcoming. Doing it in person lets you communication emotions that cannot be communicated on paper. Strategically, it should also let you establish strong quotes early. Hopefully, your quotes provide context and balance to the emotional quotes from witnesses and victims.

Social Media and Web 2.0 tools were all abuzz during this crisis. The first post was made to Twitter from an i-phone.

The actual Twitter post is interesting:

The photo is amazing:

The New York City media capital was also quick to get interviews with passengers.

Witness interviews and Social Media make it all the more critical that a company is able to tell its story early and in person.

Mayor Bloomberg took the opportunity to be in the spotlight with a quick news conference. However, he had few facts, even though U.S. Air had already released facts he should have known. Like many politicians, he rattled off thank you ad-libs without pause, good pacing or good quotes. And no one should hold a news conference with other officials standing behind you. It’s distracting and looks stupid.

The U.S. Airways news releases leave much to be desired. The early releases lacked basics, including the time of the accident and the fact that their plane had landed in the Hudson River. I suspect they company would have known this, especially by the second and third release.

U.S. Air’s website was also slow and problematic. When I first went to their site there was an updated splash page that listed links to several news releases. Once you accessed the first link, you could not return to the other releases. Instead, it took you back to the airline’s standard home page for booking flights, where there was no mention of the crash until late in the evening. Such an event warrants a special bulletin on the home page. Attempts to open the Press Room link hidden below About US, were unsuccessful.

It took 30 minutes to access the Press Room, but again there was no special link to the crash information. Late into the evening news releases still contained few facts.

So what should you be doing next based on this quick case study?

1) Check your crisis communications plans templates. Your first statement should come from a fill-in-the-blank template that should anticipate all you’ll need to say when information is limited.

2) A second set of templates should be written for all of your other possible scenarios. Write with a format that includes fill-in-the-blanks, bullet points and/or multiple choice options that speed up the release. Write them on a calm day so you’ll remember all the points you need to cover; points you may forget in the throes of a crisis. 

3) In a crisis, the sequence is usually, Problem – Panic – Paralysis, as in decision paralysis, which slows down rapid communications. Success comes from Planning – Practice – Performance. Revise your plan annually and practice through regular crisis drills in order to perform well on the day of your crisis. Practice also means testing your ability to update your website.

4) If you have not done a major re-write to your crisis communications plan since the advent of Social Media, your plan likely has fatal flaws. Witnesses, victims and employees are communicating faster than corporate spokespeople and traditional media. All of the rules have changed.