“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
IATA’s 23rd AVSEC World, which took place in Washington D.C. in October 2014, addressed, amongst other topics, the use of social media in incident and accident management with a session entitled ‘Managing the Message’.
The fact that IATA felt compelled to address this topic at such an important event is very significant and sends out a clear signal not to ignore, or try to avoid, this issue.
There are two primary reasons for focussing on this issue now that social media usage has become de riguer. Firstly, the use, misuse or lack of use of social media at the time of an incident or accident can have a significant impact on a company’s financial balance sheet. Secondly, it also plays an important role in defining the public’s perception of aviation.
The economic repercussions are linked to the fact that all major airlines, airport groups and manufacturers are listed on stock exchanges; and even those entities which are not have shareholders and customers who will make them accountable. The entire industry is involved and is expected to be able to react appropriately, including aircraft and engine manufacturers, air traffic control, airports, accident investigation bodies and government agencies.
These are the conceptual motivations that prompted IATA to start publishing guidelines on the topic in 2012, but perhaps the industry wouldn’t even have guidelines and conferences to share best practice on social media nowadays had it not been for a key event which took place in November 2010. Four minutes after the take-off of Qantas flight QF32 from Singapore for its flight to Sydney, one of the Rolls-Royce engines suffered an uncontained failure, shutting down the engine and damaging the wing. The consequent explosion was heard on the ground and within 45 minutes the first tweets were speculating about an accident. The airline’s CEO, Alan Joyce, told the Asian Wall St Journal at the time of the event, “We were ready for traditional media, and we had a press conference by 4 o´clock that afternoon, which I fronted. And we had our press statement out within half an hour of us knowing the issue. But we´d missed this whole [social media] end of communication”.
Qantas (but actually almost the whole industry in reality) had not yet appreciated back then that we live in a world where communication is instantaneous, delivered in short soundbites and has become increasingly mainstream, whereby every passenger can become the reporter, where every smartphone incorporates a camera, converting the private experience into a public spectacle, and where a message posted on a social media account can reach the whole world within seconds. Therefore, social media has become a window on what is happening and echoes that sound across the globe.
Have a look at this picture of a restrained airline passenger, taken by a fellow traveller on board a European carrier. It was first posted on Tumblr (a microblogging platform and social networking website owned by Yahoo) and reached world-famous media outlets, such as CBS, in a matter of minutes!
Major aviation players should then, by now at least, understand that they must have an effective Crisis Communication Plan in place for handling such situations, including on the parallel, virtual world of online platforms, and that these strategies must be tested and implemented as necessary before a crisis takes place.
Additionally, social media is, by its very nature, continuously growing and evolving, so what might have been a good idea a year ago may be out of date by now. This is why strategies need to be constantly tested and reviewed.
Whether or not the reports that a video recording made by someone on board Germanwings flight 4U9525 on 24th March 2015, found in the French Alps on one of the victims’ mobile phone, is actually true, it clearly highlights a new security challenge authorities and airlines have to face: the complicated task is no longer to ‘simply’ retrieve the corpses of the victims and the fuselage of the plane, protecting and cataloguing victims’ belongings, but also to make sure that no unscrupulous journalists or thieves get their hands on media content produced on board by those involved in an incident or accident, and especially not before the investigators do.
The reality is that social media has become an important tool in accident probes…whether we like it or not.