Last Updated Apr 21, 2008 11:33 PM EDT
As always, the tactical issues involve responsiveness and transparency, both of which were sorely lacking in the first few days of the cancellations. Perhaps the company and the communications team didn't know what was happening or how long it would last. But all the coverage I saw of this situation involved cancelled flights and pissed off customers. That tells me that American didn't have a crisis communications plan in place and ready to roll, and didn't have any alternative story lines developed to counter this bad news.
For instance, take the most important story line of all: passenger safety. Do you want to be in a potentially unsafe airplane five miles above the ground? Of course not! Yet I saw no coverage of inspectors and maintenance crews working overtime, or behind-the-scenes looks at the inspection process and how it was proceeding. I certainly didn't see any prominent American spokespeople taking control of the situation and changing the story from one of stranded passengers to one of hardworking airline employees ensuring passenger safety.
All I've seen so far is one weak apology email from American that hit my inbox on Friday, well after the storyline had been set. And amazingly, it was signed by the EVP of Marketing, not the CEO. To their credit, after the weak apology, the email contained a comprehensive Q&A about why the planes were grounded. Good -- but too little, too late.
No one knows when a crisis like this will hit. But everyone can plan in advance and have crisis response programs in place.