Just as the airlines were returning to the airwaves after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 has virtually grounded airline marketing again.
Some crisis-management experts say it's time for airlines to take the unprecedented step of running marketing campaigns that openly focus on safety.
"Safety is the biggest issue right now: Consumers want to know what airlines are doing to keep them safe," says Robin Cohn, author of The PR Crisis Bible. "The first question consumers ask in a crisis is: 'How does this affect me?' "
With many airlines teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and business off up to 40%, the industry has little to lose. The nation's nine largest airlines suffered a combined third-quarter loss of $2.5 billion.
"There's a reason why we're not flying - the airlines are not doing anything to make us feel secure," says Bob Gold, president of PR firm Bob Gold & Associates in Los Angeles. "Not one airline has spoken honestly about the safety issue. And I'm very curious why."
Crisis-management expert Eric Dezenhall of Nichols Dezenhall Communications in Washington, D.C., says airline and consumer interests have converged: Both are worried about survival. "We're dealing with Darwinian issues here," he says.
Marketing strategies the experts say airlines could use to survive:
Be visible. Airlines typically suspend ads for at least 48 hours after any crash. But after Sept. 11, most, except for Southwest Airlines, grounded marketing for a month or longer.
Cohn says that allowed consumer attention to focus on the federal bailout and squabbling over security responsibility.
"The airlines should stop whining about losses," she says. "It's grating to hear. They're getting bailed out while the rest of the economy is hurting."
Southwest appears to be taking the lead after the latest event, too. The airline pulled its ads for 48 hours "as a courtesy," but will return by the end of the week, says spokesman Ed Stewart.
Be contrite. Consumers like to see companies take responsibility, not point fingers at third parties, after an incident, says Dezenhall.
Be specific. Major airlines rolled out similar new ad campaigns in the wake of the terrorist attacks and featured broad themes. Southwest, for example, patriotically declared: "Keep America Flying." United featured real employees sharing stories. But the time for flag waving and feel-good messages is over, experts say, especially after Monday's crash, which apparently was not caused by terrorists.
Gold says airlines should specifically address passenger safety in the same way auto companies now feature safety issues and crash dummies in ads. He suggests airlines name the "five biggest changes" they are making to improve safety, such as reinforced cockpit doors and stringent equipment checks.
"There's a huge opportunity for an airline to come out and say, 'Our job is to make your flight safe,' " he says.
Southwest's Stewart disagrees. Airline concern for passenger safety is a given, he says. "You have to have to be an idiot to get up in the morning and not think about safety if you're in this business."
Dezenhall warns that there are pitfalls, too, for spin meisters who think that just touting safety can pull the embattled airline industry out of its current tailspin. A few fancy, safety-oriented TV commercials will not do the job, he says.
Dezenhall suggests that airlines need to launch serious national PR efforts featuring pilots, security experts and mechanics talking about safety improvements.
"If you play the safety card too heavily, it implies emotionally and legally that the airline industry is in absolute control of all of the variables. And they're not."
Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY. November 15, 2001
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