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Communication During a Crisis

I was instantly terrified on Friday, February 13, to turn on the Internet and find the headline of “Deadly plane crash in Buffalo.” Having lived in Buffalo, New York, for my entire life, I immediately opened the story to find that a plane had crashed into a residential neighborhood about 10 minutes away from the place I call home.

This was the exact flight my father used to take on business when he worked for a company based in New Jersey. I read that a young pilot died, along with 49 others, including a woman who lost her husband in the September 11 attacks. Families were waiting in the airport to pick up their loved ones who would never make it home.

When a tragedy of this size happens, it is hard to stop the communication. Although it is tragic, people talk . . . a lot, because you can’t help but be interested. My parents said that this plane crash was one of the only topics covered in the news for days. Every new lead on the investigation of what may have caused the crash was discussed in great detail. Every story about the innocent people who had lost their lives was told, and memorials were held across the city.

After this event occurred, I thought back to the recent plane crash in the Hudson River where all passengers survived. I have never been fearful of flying on an airplane, and since I go to school about 1,000 miles away from home, I am lucky I feel this way. After all of the tragedies and frightening moments experienced in the air, I realized that the public relations practitioners for these airlines must be doing something right.

The communication experts have done a wonderful job ensuring safety. The public was notified that these occurrences are very rare, and it was communicated that the Q400 model of aircraft has had no previous crashes. In a recent Buffalo News article, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, of US Airways Flight 1549, discussed his consulting firm, which applies airline safety regulations to other businesses. The airline industry is so well known for safety that it is looked to as an example.

But what wasn’t communicated clearly was the fact that flight 3407 was not technically a Continental Airlines flight, leading to assumptions that Continental Airlines was responsible. When checking the Web site for Continental Airlines there was one news release expressing sympathy about the plane crash, and discussing the ways in which Continental Airlines will support Colgan Air during such a difficult time. In order to learn that the flight was a Continental Connection flight operated by Colgan Air, I needed to visit the Colgan Air Web site. Pinnacle Airlines Corp. owns Colgan Air, and their flights consist of the Continental Connection, US Airways Express and United Express.

Colgan Air released about 10 statements during the week of the plane crash, providing information about the passengers, pilot and crew, safety policies and actions to support the victim’s families. A question and answer document was released, explaining the investigation to cause of the plane crash, stating that the cause is unknown, but there are suspicions that it was related to excess ice on the wing.

When a tragedy occurs, it is important for the public to know exact details. The worst thing that could happen is for rumors to spread, resulting in miscommunication that needs to be corrected. In this recent tragedy, I feel as if Colgan Air did a fantastic job releasing information to media outlets, and keeping its company’s name away from negative attention. There is no easy way to communicate during a crisis, but giving as much information as soon as possible has proven successful through this recent incident.

My prayers and support go to all of the families who have lost a loved one on flight 3407.

-Sarah Minkel


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