PR experts applaud Lufthansa's crisis communications approach to Germanwings disaster

In the wake of the devastating revelations surrounding the Germanwings crash in the French Alps, airlines have now pledged to change their rules to ensure at least two crew members are present in the cockpit at all times.

Days after the crash, which killed 150 people this week, it emerged that the 27-year old pilot Andreas Lubitz purposefully flew the plane into the mountains, and reportedly suffered from depression.

Previous recent airlines disasters such as that which Malaysian Airlines suffered, have shone the light on how critical and quick an airline's response must be. It has already moved fast to remove any marketing messages that may be deemed inpappropriate in light ot the tragedy, and yesterday saw Transport for London pull all advertising for the airline across the London Underground.

The Drum gathered opinions of PR experts who have examined the airline’s crisis communications approach and applauded the response of Germanwings owner Lufthansa Group's chief executive Carsten Spohr.

Mark Borkowski, founder and head of Borkowski PR

I would expect Lufthansa one of the largest airlines in Europe, both in terms of overall passengers carried and fleet size, to have invested in a substantial crisis provision. Sadly, for all corporations, things will go wrong in any given situation, we know this as Murphy’s Law. A multimillion pound crisis business has been built on this premise. So when Germanwings crashed into the Alps on Tuesday, Carsten Spohr - the head of Lufthansa, the German carrier that owns Germanwings flipped into crisis mode.

He was well aware, because of training, all eyes were on his leadership. The systematic by the numbers response, triggered a series of effective actions, mobilising the networks invested in, to manage the deepening crisis. It was a well-built framework that allowed the spokesman to provide a message structure sealed with simple consistent clarity against a noisy backdrop of news-driven rumour and social opinion.

Despite pressures from all sides, Spohr was concise, clear and employed consistent messages which achieved cut through. Employing a range of proprietary psychological archetypes, he displayed the diligence required at the heart of crisis planning. The response was by the book; by allowing a pertinent interpretation of the facts he was rationally not emotionally resonant.

I was impressed by his ability to project a stoic inner strength - a balance of empathy and corporate diligence. The full text book was on display: speed of communication, factual content of messaging, trust and credibility, empathy and caring, competence and expertise, honesty and openness. The ideal level of commitment and dedication required to address all the issues of the catastrophe.

Few onlookers can ever decide at times of crisis if the response is ultimately perfect. Nevertheless the way that Lufthansa approached this horrific crash suggests that the brand is on a road to recovery.

Jane Wilson, managing director, MHP Corporate Affairs

The 24 hour news channel on the TV screens around my office showed the now familiar scenes of the aftermath of a plane crash. Images of scattered debris and stills of a commercial airline plane. It didn’t illicit much more of a reaction than general sadness that another plane had come down and the odd supposition about what might have happened. Then came the terrible, incomprehensible news that the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately flew the plane into the “fatal descent” that preceded the crash.

This news was delivered quickly and straightforwardly by Marseilles prosecutor Brice Robin to grief stricken relatives and to the world’s equally shocked media. Lufthansa, which had acted swiftly and with compassion to get relatives of the deceased passengers to the crash site issued a statement describing their ‘shock and horror’ and echoed this in the press conference chaired by Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr. It was at this conference that Sphor was asked the questions that have dominated coverage since. Questions about safety protocols around leaving a pilot in the cockpit unattended and the question of Lubitz’s mental health history – specifically an interruption to his initial pilot training.

This was not a terrorist attack, not an ideologically driven act of mass murder which one group has claimed responsibility for. But human nature looks for responsibility in the face of tragedy. And so, the news narrative has taken a predictable turn as journalists look for ‘clues’ to Lubitz’s state of mind (old friends, colleagues and contacts interviewed) and whether his employer German Wings and its parent Lufthansa are responsible for not having spotted this potential eventuality. But mental illness is complex, and personal and not as easy a news agenda to cling to as corporate negligence. It’s not as easy to respond to either.

Other airlines and US air regulators have been quick to issue statements and airlines across the world are publicising changes to their rules regarding two crew members being required at all times in the cockpit. In the UK, the CAA told national operators to review their procedures. Lufthansa are not addressing the cockpit issue directly at this time and sticking to their statement that this was an unforeseen, tragic event saying “We are trying to deal with an enigma. No systems could prevent such an event” They have made no comment on changes to their cockpit safety protocols and they continue to reassert their position that Lubitz underwent the same stringent testing that all their pilots do.

For now, there is no reason to suspect otherwise but one senses that the international media are resolutely pursuing all avenues to test this position. It’s likely that details of the nature of Lubitz’s absence from training will become public as these things often do either formally or informally and Lufthansa will no doubt be prepared in their response. Their reputation will ultimately hang on whether they follow other airlines to review cockpit security protocols and more importantly whether they can provide evidence that this was in fact a truly unforeseen, tragic event that no procedures, protocols or testing could have avoided.

Mark Lowe, co-founder, Third City

What we fear most about tragedy is its randomness. Airlines know that safety is an existential issue and every possible scenario is planned for, but when the worst happens we are often left puzzling about cause and effect.

The tragic irony of the Germanwings disaster is that an impregnable cockpit designed after 9/11 was used by Andreas Lubitz to shield his own unspeakable malice. Safety was cause but not effect in this case.

No one wins from these situations and it’s distasteful to imply that they should be ‘handled’. But an airline can’t go silent after a tragedy; its leaders need to show empathy, the most human of qualities.

On this, Lufthansa has done a creditable job. “Safety in aviation is not a given” said its chief executive in a YouTube address, suitably pitched. Could he have said more? Perhaps, but shots of scattered wreckage quickly make his point redundant.

Social media is trickier; impossible to ignore, but it’s so easy to appear contrived. For me the airline’s #indeepsorrow crossed that line but if you read the tweets they are largely sincere. I felt the same about the black and white logos but it wasn’t a harmful gesture I suppose.

As for the future, I have to agree with Carsten Spohr that safety in aviation will never be a given - but that won’t stop us flying. Human progress can never eliminate risk and for most of us its price is simply to haunt us with that fact.

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