Danny Rogers: Ash lessons must be learnt

On Message: PR Week editor Danny Rogers on marketing and branding

In his first weekly column for Travolution, PRWeek editor Danny Rogers assesses the travel industry’s response to the recent ash flights crisis and warns of challenges to come.

The volcanic ash crisis looks set to cause major disruption to the travel and tourism industry throughout the summer.

It has presented a huge logistical challenge to airlines, operators and the authorities, but the crisis has really been one of communication; something enlightened operators recognise to their advantage.

The communications performance of various organisations involved has ranged from the indecisive to the brilliantly opportunistic.

Of course wisdom is easier in retrospect. When the crisis first struck on April 14, it was unprecedented, with the immediate burden falling on quasi-governmental bodies across Europe. Met offices and air traffic services, had (and still have) to make calls on whether planes should fly.

It’s understandable – when you imagine the consequences of being wrong – that they should have initially erred on the side of caution.

But in the early days we were forced to make do with a NATS executive, standing heroically outside his office for the sake of rolling news reporters, explaining what might happen should ash get into an aircraft engine – and it sounded pretty horrible.

Into the communications void waded retired pilots who had flown through ash clouds (‘..and then all four engines failed”…) and obscure academics (“…if the ash solidifies in the engine, the plane will crash and everyone will die.’). Great.

The Government struggled to co-ordinate the response – something surely that would have been aided by a senior minister with a tourism brief as Travel Weekly has been demanding – and consequently some airlines lost confidence in the advice and opted for attack.

Three days into the crisis BA boss Willie Walsh employed the kind of communications bombast and brinksmanship that he has been using – to some success – in his battle with striking cabin crew.

He personally joined a four-strong crew in a successful test flight over Ireland and grabbed the Monday headlines claiming he had ‘fresh evidence that the current restrictions on airspace are unnecessary’.

It made the Government look stupid, particularly when restrictions were lifted shortly afterwards. Unfortunately, it was a blunt tactic and any victory was mitigated by a growing number of agents and customers bemoaning a dearth of useful advice from BA itself.

Even Ryanair was looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable in the media glare, with Michael O’Leary initially saying that it would give minimal help to stranded customers, before being forced to backtrack by regulators.

One of the few organisations to emerge with credit was Thomson/First Choice, which – having sensibly learned from XL’s collapse 18 months earlier – went on the front foot from the start.

Cleverly Thomson/First Choice’s team was proactive in giving information to the media, which not only positioned the operator as authoritative and a consumer champion, but simultaneously provided a quick, cheap way of getting advice to customers.

The key message, that package companies offered greater protection to customers in today’s crisis-laden era, came through consistently.

As ever, in crisis situations, it is those organisations that embrace communications and plan resources accordingly that come out best, even gaining from difficult times.

It is a lesson that must be learned by far more Government departments and private operators alike: because the ash crisis is not going away any time soon. And even if it does, there will be something else just around the corner.

Danny Rogers has been editor of PR Week, the industry’s bible for five years but has been a leading media and marketing journalist for more than a decade. He has been a contributing editor for the Financial Times and Media Guardian, as well as deputy editor for Marketing magazine, which he helped overhaul in 2004, winning PPA’s Business Magazine of the Year.

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