Management of crisis is a significant organizational function. Failure can result in serious harm to stakeholders, losses for an organization, or end its very existence. Public relations practitioners are an integral part of crisis management teams in the airline and airport. So a set of best practices and lessons garnered from our knowledge of crisis management in the airline would be a very useful resource for those in public relations (Fall, 2004). Volumes have been written about crisis management in the aviation industry by both practitioners and researchers from many different disciplines making it a challenge to synthesize what we know about crisis management and public relations’ place in that knowledge base. A crisis could be defined as a significant threat to the activities that can have adverse impacts on the corporate framework if the biggest problems are not dealt with accordingly.
In managing the risk in the airline, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organization, its stakeholders, and industry. A crisis can create three related risks such as public safety, financial loss, and reputation loss of the entire airline or airport. Some disasters, such as plane crash and passengers harm, can result in injuries and even loss of lives. Disasters can create financial loss by disrupting operations, creating a loss of market share of the passengers willing to use a given airline or spawning lawsuits related to the crisis. A crisis reflects poorly on an organization and will damage a reputation to some degree. Clearly these three threats are interrelated. Injuries or deaths will result in financial and reputation loss while reputations have a financial impact on organizations (Regester & Larkin, 2008).
Study of Public Relations in the Airline and Airport
Public relations is practiced in many different organizational contexts, from in-house government or public affairs roles to corporate communications roles in small, medium large, listed, and not-for-profit organizations. Through their communication planning andmanagement, public relations practitioners build and enhance organizational reputation and build and maintain relationships that are important to the airline organization and its goals. Most public relations departments are responsible for monitoring and responding to changes in the external environment, including issues, expectations, relationships, and reputation, and at the same time, also contribute to maintaining productive working environments within the organization through employee and management communication (Grunig, 2009).. Effective staff communication explains organizational priorities and shares corporate information about what is happening so that employees understand and accept the need for change and commit their efforts and ideas to helping the organization achieve its mission and goals.
Understanding Systems Theory
The public relations literature defines a system as a set of interacting units that endures through time within an established boundary by responding and adjusting to change pressures from the environment to achieve and maintain goal states. In this way, the organization is seen as a system that exists to create and achieve goals that are beneficial to the body and the environment. These goals might include increased profits and sales, support from investors, increased employment, the creation of new products, or a lower carbon footprint. Organizational systems are not static but rely on a series of exchanges of inputs and outputs between environments and organizations. In the corporate systems, data are likely to come in the form of resources to an organization. Once received, these inputs are transformed via a range of organizational activities, such as production lines and even boardroom meetings. The transformation process may be affected by the degree of interaction among the different departments within the organization
Public relations is part of the adaptive and maintenance subsystems. By understanding what is happening within the environment and how environmental changes might affect
Boundary Spanning and Public Relations
organizational goals, public relations can drive adaptation to suit stakeholder needs better. Qantas is a major Australian airline with a rich tradition and history. One of the key environmental factors affecting all carriers is the rising cost of aviation fuel. Responses to these rising costs include the reduction of available flights and increases in ticket prices. For Qantas, public relations concern also includes damaging media reports about a range of incidents on the ground and in the air (Regester & Larkin, 2008).
Early systems theory suggested that an organization and its environment were separated by a boundary through which information and resources flowed. Spanning this boundary was seen as a critical role for public relations professionals, who would provide information to the environment about the organization and bring information about the environment back to the organizational decision makers.
The practitioner monitored the boundary on an ongoing basis, with one foot in the organization and one foot outside Both these roles continue in today’s organizations. Public relations professionals use formal and informal research mechanisms to gather information about key audiences and issues and feed them back into the organization. Knowledge of the attitudes and behaviors of the leading publics are important to organizations as they plan their goals and strategies. We envisage that Qantas public relations managers are actively engaged in communicating with the public but find that their strategic intent is being tested by ongoing incidents and sustained media interest. In late 2008, for example, Qantas public relations activities involved publicity around the first Qantas A380, which was a planned event, at around the same time as managing unexpected and certainly unplanned media and public interest in flight delays and safety incidents (Wooten & James, 2008).
Public relations practitioners undertake a major analytical function in considering the source and value of the information gained, information that may be relevant to the short-term plans of the airline industry and therefore acted on in the immediate future, or it may influence its longer-term plans. Forward-looking airlines like Qantas establish sophisticated databases of information on issues and stakeholders to help them identify issue-specific and sector-wide trends and inform their long-term planning (Fall, 2004). By supporting this role, public relations professionals become the eyes and ears of the airline industry, staying well connected to key stakeholders to ensure that the organization is always well informed of events in its environment. Thus, for example, during pay negotiations, employees may threaten strike action. If an organization is aware of this threat, it may be able to prevent it or at least be prepared for its consequences.
When pilots threaten to strike, their actions may affect the airline services. While governments and other air service providers may not be able to resolve the pilots’ demands around pay and conditions, it can at least prepare for this action and prepare passengers for potential disruptions. The outward flow of information from an organization, which the public relations practitioner develops and distributes, happens through direct and mediated communication channels such as websites, presentations, media releases, interviews, community meetings, and hotlines (Wooten & James, 2008). The public relations professional tells and sells the organization’s story, ensuring that all key groups are informed about the organization’s actions. Just as important as the information flow back into the organization and the opportunities for dialogue and discussion so that views external to the organization are relayed back to the decision makers and are understood.
An airline manager in a remote location may need to communicate directly with residents about potential impacts during upgrade or establishment of an airstrip in the area. Both the airline manager and the public relations professional are likely to be involved:
- Both will plan the discussion and agree how to present the information
- The public relations practitioner will prepare communication material, including backgrounders, a PowerPoint presentation, and possible questions and answers
- The airline manager might take the lead in the meeting with residents, as the person responsible for actions onsite
- The public relations practitioner might help to answer questions, observe reactions and responses, and take notes of the main issues raised by the community
- Both will be involved in debriefing as the process unfolds.
Adjustment and Adaptation
Given the critical role that inputs play to a well-functioning system, considerable emphasis is placed on an organization on gaining the data it needs to operate, such as investor funds. The public relations management role establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships that provide inputs to the organization; however, to secure these data, organizations may be required to adjust their policies or actions and adapt to their environment. Adaptation results from strategies in the form of organizational and environmental change programs that produce and maintain stability in corporate or environmental relationships (Grunig, 2009).
The adjustment may be problematic when an organization faces conflicting needs within their public and audience groups. Adjusting organizational strategy to favor one group may very well disenfranchise another. Thus, the public relations management role must help the senior decision makers within the organization to navigate this difficult terrain and use a variety of relationship maintenance strategies to achieve the most positive outcomes possible. The Qantas airline has always wanted to increase the prices of the flight tickets to cover the rising cost of aviation fuel. This decision may be perceived as unpopular by customers yet goes some way to protect the profitability of Qantas and the returns to its shareholders. For another organization, they might decide to reduce the costs during the Christmas events due to the financial crisis, which may be unpopular with staff. On the other hand, it is a one way to manage finances. In both cases, some explanation about the reasons behind the actions must be given (Alfonso & Suzanne, 2008).
Closed system and public relations
In closed systems, the public relations function has low regard for the environment. Although public relations managers may acknowledge their surroundings and follow regulatory procedures, they are unlikely to interact with other peoples. Instead, public relations departments will adopt a narrow communication perspective without considering environmental input. This type of approach is a functionary one, implemented to preserve the organization’s image. Because the structure is closed to its environment, it is not able to take advantage of opportunities or move quickly to address potential problems. Instead, public relations departments react to crises, and when there is a crisis, there is often a cover-up as management denies that there is a problem.
Open system and public relations
As outlined in the open system, public relations take on a functional approach that is concerned with two-way communication between the organization and the environment. This requires resources for organizations to not only monitor their conditions and public opinion but also to build and maintain relationships with the major agencies and stakeholders within their environment. These links are created as a result of both parties having the same interest in coming up with a solution that meets the needs of various parts of the system. Additionally, public r works with the environment to determine what is being said about issues that affect multiple areas of the system (Wilcox, Cameron & Reber, 1992).
An airline could anticipate the significance of the changes in the climate and the carbon economy to its customers and used this information to create a convenient solution for them. Even when conflict arises, open systems public relations is positioned to resolve the situation by working with the environment. In this way, public relations is actively engaged with the environment and not reactive to it. An example of an organization that adjusts to accommodate the needs of its environment is Virgin Blue’s carbon offset program. Recognizing the importance of climate change and the carbon economy, Virgin Blue, a low-cost airline with a base in Australia, has not only implemented operational changes to minimize greenhouse gas emissions but also offers customers the opportunity to offset the greenhouse gas emissions related to their individual flight (Alfonso & Suzanne, 2008).
A typical department is likely to be made up of junior and more experienced practitioners who are responsible for implementing the public relations and media relations programs. When needed, organizations can utilize the services of external public relations consultants. The roles and responsibilities of public relations practitioners are influenced by two forces: the professionalization of public relations and the nature of the organizational environment The state of the organizational environment also affects the make-up of the public relations team. More intense conditions require more senior practitioners to be aware of the dynamic environment and how changes will affect the goals of the airline industry (Center, Jackson, Smith & Stansberry, 2008). Some of the challenges and the changing dynamics of public relations highlighted to indicate that tensions exist in practice as public relations is evolving.
Public relations and the airline marketing department
There is common ground between marketing in airline office and public relations functions in organizations, and in some organizations, the two functions are combined. Even though public relations and marketing may take the focus of a consumer, their relationship with customers comes from a different base. Marketing depends on customers to get services provided by the airlines and deliver a profit through an exchange process, whereas public relations see users as one part of a complex environment (Center, Jackson, Smith & Stansberry, 2008). The customer versus non-customer orientation is one of the most important points of difference between public relations and marketing. Marketing is primarily a client or sales-oriented function. Although the integrated marketing communication concept by most airlines have introduced a focus on non-customer relationships, public relations is the only service that explicitly considers non-customer publics and audiences, including employees, government, communities, and shareholders.
Public relations and the legal department
Public relations practitioners should apply relationship building strategies to understand lawyers and the law better. Public relations practitioners are encouraged to meet regularly with lawyers to discuss and plan for legal issues that have the potential to affect the organization. Practitioners should also gain an understanding of the different laws or rules that may have an impact on their practice. Public relations professionals should possess a basic understanding of state, territory, and federal laws relating to their organization and its industry, rules or codes of conduct of professional associations, privacy, copyright and trademark law, trade practices law, employee rights, and corporate disclosure rules.
Often, airlines and airports are reluctant to reveal too much information during legal proceedings. During a crisis, most decisions about the release of information are made collaboratively, with lawyers in the leadership role yet it is just as important to manage the court of public opinion. While traditional advocacy strategies might use the media, an effective strategy during litigation is the internet. Full adherence to the laws of the land may be started against the airline, airport or both. This can occur even before the dust has settled at the accident site and even if this does not occur, there is still need to copy all documents that might become pertinent to the crash before the originals remain seized by the investigation or the judicial authorities. Such matters are all part of the crisis and therefore a part of air transport management that may affect the whole industry and its future (Wooten & James, 2008).
The role of public relations in emergency procedures
There must have been occasions globally when similar comments could have been leveled at the airline concerned. Although there is no magic formula for success, there can be no doubt that careful planning training and practice can minimize the adverse effects of a major accident, yet it cannot be done in isolation.
The public relations play the following roles in the airport to manage emergency caused by the airplanes:
- To be responsible for developing the media messages regarding any event that may arise during the flight.
- The public relations should be responsible for all stakeholder communications including the Board, Foundation personnel, donors, grantees suppliers or vendors and the media.
- Serve as the primary media contact.
- Update and maintain Web site so that both the clients and the public could always stay updated.
- Monitor media coverage and provide rumor control.
In conclusion, the airport and airline safety managers should be aware of the fine line that may exist between having an incident and having a major accident. They are also conscious of the advantages of having well-prepared emergency procedures to minimize the social and financial effects of an accident should one ever occur. Besides, there is need to ensure proper human resource management to ensure the airline activities are carried out in line with the legal transport requirements. The public relations would then play an important role to ensure these objectives are achieved effectively.
Alfonso, G. H., & Suzanne, S. (2008). Crisis Communications Management on the Web: How Internet‐Based Technologies are Changing the Way Public Relations Professionals Handle Business Crises. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 16(3), 143-153.
Center, A. H., Jackson, P., Smith, S., &Stansberry, F. (2008). Public relations practices: Managerial case studies and problems. Pearson Prentice Hall.
Fall, L. T. (2004). The increasing role of public relations as a crisis management function: An empirical examination of communication restrategising efforts among destination organisation managers in the wake of 11th September, 2001. Journal of Vacation Marketing, 10(3), 238-252.
Grunig, J. E. (2009). Paradigms of global public relations in an age of digitalisation. PRism, 6(2), 1-19.
Regester, M., & Larkin, J. (2008). Risk issues and crisis management in public relations: A casebook of best practice. Kogan Page Publishers.
Wilcox, D. L., Cameron, G. T., &Reber, B. H. (1992). Public relations: Strategies and tactics (pp. 426-8). A. Dodge (Ed.). New York: HarperCollins.
Wooten, L. P., & James, E. H. (2008). Linking crisis management and leadership competencies: The role of human resource development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 10(3), 352-379.