Flight AF 447
Analysis of Air France’s crisis communications
Following the crash of flight AF 447 Rio-Paris, Air France
had to face the worst possible type of incident an airline could
experience: the loss of a plane with all of its crew and
In this type of situation, communication are the cornerstone of
the crisis management strategy. On the one hand, it must highlight
the company’s ability to manage an exceptional situation and also
help preserve the quality of its relationships with target
audiences worldwide. The slightest dissonance in this
communication could destabilize the whole business and make it
more vulnerable than ever.
This is the position Air France seems to be in despite the fact
that the company does have a very good reputation and has already
had to cope with tragic accidents (Mont Saint-Odile in 1992,
Concorde in 2000). On these previous occasions, the company
managed to get through these difficult periods by keeping strict
control over its communications. With the AF447 crash, things are
With due deference to the task in hand, we have tried to
determine the factors inside the company, as well as the mechanics
of public opinion, that made the first stage of this crisis so
destabilizing for Air France.
It is no longer entirely true that the key to successful
crisis management lies in the first few hours …
Air France undoubtedly benefits from a very accomplished crisis
management organisation. Due to the nature of its activities, the
company has an entire dormant organisation capable of springing
into action within seconds depending on the level of the alert.
The company showed this as soon as the catastrophe was announced.
Mid morning on June 1st, when the Air France technical
operations centre realised that flight AF 447 would never reach
its destination, the company triggered its action plan to manage
the first priorities: to look after relatives and issue initial
The families and friends of passengers were gathered away from
the crowds in terminal T2 at CDG. This enabled to provide them
with the specialist psychological support they required and
protect them from the glares of the cameras already on site and
keen to capture images of the distress caused by the tragedy.
Footage was broadcast over and over on major news stations
worldwide. At the same time, another support unit was convened to
provide assistance to flight personnel and a free-phone number
issued for anyone affected by the crash.
This was a colossal undertaking that the company had to
accomplish within a very short time. It would have been impossible
to do without advance preparation and a specialist crisis
management organisation. Informing families or next of kin is a
long and complex task especially when the airline often only has
the passenger’s mobile phone number. However, it is essential to
move fast to meet the needs of families and respond to the demands
of the authorities, media and employees, all while observing
specific legal requirements.
It is the typical crisis situation where the company is under
siege. It experiences a huge number of demands from all quarters,
at the very moment when it needs to research, sift and analyse its
own information to understand what has happened. The company must
move quickly but will be discredited immediately if it delivers
The company organised its first public statement on June 1st at
1pm with a press conference at Roissy with CEO, Mr Pierre-Henri
Gourgeon. Given the scope of the crisis, he was the only credible
spokesperson and there was no alternative to a press conference.
This was an incredibly difficult exercise for a CEO who had
only just joined the Group (January 2009). Despite the emotion and
trauma, the vast amount of information and innumerable theories -
undoubtedly discussed with the crisis cell - he had to take the
stage and adopt the right tone that showed empathy and a sense of
This initial statement highlights Air France’s control of
crisis communications at this stage. By expressing the company’s
pain, by sticking to established facts, by stating that he would
do everything he could to reveal the true causes of the crash, the
CEO did everything he should have done in this type of situation.
The following day, one of the first press releases issued by
the company concerned the 4000 employees who had spontaneously
volunteered their services to help Air France manage this
exceptional situation. It was a form of positive communication, to
show that the entire company was pulling together. It’s a reminder
of the “storm of the century” in 1999, when public opinion hailed
EDF’s ability to mobilise all its resources, even retired
employees, to re-establish electricity supplies in the worst
affected areas. What stronger show of solidarity can you give than
retired employees rallying to give a helping hand?
During this first phase, Air France’s management of the crisis
is right on target in terms of its image: being responsible and
staying close to hand.
Knowing or not knowing how to stop an emerging controversy
Although the early phases of the crisis seem to have been
perfectly well managed, the company’s position quickly comes under
fire on issues that are at the heart of its reputation – safety
and reliability. We have now reached the logical next step in a
Most crises go through 3 phases: emotion, controversy and
The challenge facing the company is how to contain the
controversy before the small snowball becomes a major avalanche
destroying everything in its path. In theory, a company has
several alternatives when a controversy develops.
The first is to cut suspicions short by offering proof to back
up their statements. For example, Air France quickly cut short
rumours of a wave of resignations from cabin crews (hostesses and
stewards) following the AF447 crash, suggested by an article
published in ‘Le Parisien’ on July 1st 2009. The company responded
quickly and provided proof that this was untrue. The rumour ended
The second possible strategy is to blame something or someone
(supplier, public authorities, rogue employee, etc). To a certain
degree, this is the strategy adopted by Société Générale in
January 2008 with its trader Jérôme Kerviel. This crisis is not
our fault, we are the victims of fraud. It’s quite a risky
technique, but it did allow Société Générale to slightly soften
the blow of the crisis.
Finally, the third alternative is to immediately acknowledge
the incident without trying to understate events and show that
everything possible is being done to handle it. This involves
adopting a much more open communications position to explain what
is being done during the crisis. This was the strategy adopted in
October 2005 by Michel-Edouard Leclerc, when thirty of his
clients, including ten children suffered from severe food
poisoning in South West France. The problem was caused by
Leclerc’s own-brand hamburgers. M.E Leclerc responded quickly and
tackled the crisis head on without trying to blame his supplier,
Soviba. On his blog, ‘De quoi je me M.E.L,’ (a play on words that
also means mind your own business) he explained all the measures
taken on a near daily basis to keep consumers informed. By the end
of the day on which Leclerc decided to withdraw the product, the
supermarket had already contacted 90% of customers.
Often difficult for management to accept, this third option can
be a company’s salvation. While public opinion is prepared to
accept that a company can make a mistake, it will never tolerate a
company that doesn’t know how to cope with it or attempts to
conceal the truth.
When a company hesitates between strategies, it adds fuel to
the controversy and its communications become inconsistent. But, a
crisis situation will swiftly punish inconsistency. The slightest
dissonance is very dangerous when everyone’s attention is focused
on you. This is exactly what happened at Air France.
The controversy arose over the circumstances of the crash. This is
clearly the pivotal point. It is in the interests of the airlines
and regulatory authorities to safeguard and control information
concerning the enquiry. Enquiries must be carried out calmly in
order to avoid following the wrong track and sparking wild rumours
that could destabilize the company, the manufacturer and the
authorities. This is something that Air France had always managed
to do in the past. It is also true that past accidents (Mont
Saint-Odile, Concorde) took place on French soil making it easier
to control information concerning the enquiry.
In the case of the AF447 crash, questions were quickly raised
about the Pitot tubes. And the crisis managed to sweep through
this crack. Fuelled by information from former and current pilots,
the media and numerous specialist sites revealed that several
incidents in 2008 involving Pitot tubes, produced the same ACARS
messages that preceded the AF 447 crash.
The media broadcast demands from certain pilots unions wanting
to know why Air France had done nothing back in 2008 when Pitot
tube problems first emerged. This issue received all the more
coverage since Air France suffered by comparison with Air
Caraïbes, which decided to upgrade all its Pitot tubes with
immediate effect following an in-flight incident in 2008. Air
France did not. The company followed the recommendations of
Airbus, which in view of the problems told Air France that
upgrading the Pitot tubes wouldn’t make the slightest difference.
This decision to not replace the tubes, or to replace them too
late – even if justifiable on a technical and regulatory level –
is at total odds with the company’s image as a very safe and
reliable company. The company has not managed to bridge the gap
between these perceptions. For example, one can sense the Air
France CEO’s uneasiness and difficultly in explaining the decision
on the national evening news (France 2 8pm news) on June 11th
The arguments the company put forward to justify its decision
not to replace the Pitot tubes immediately are lost in the face of
pilot comments and the perception that they have a flexible
approach to the principle of precaution. In fact, while the real
situation is always much more complex on the inside than can be
seen from the outside, it is the principle of precaution that
drives public opinion today. It has become a standard view as a
result of the vigorous promotion of the idea of risk prevention
and public health policy by companies and the authorities for many
In the case of the Pitot tubes, whatever the real situation may
be, it is difficult for the public to conceive that this sacred
“principle of precaution” was not applied as soon as the first
signs were detected. And, despite the company’s explanations, what
could be more credible to the public than the position taken by
pilots on the issue of plane safety? Naturally, the public tend to
have more faith in the people who fly the planes than in the CEO
of Air France.
From the rolling news era to continuous debates on a variety
What can we learn from this controversy phase in terms of crisis
management and communications? In the mid 80s, companies had to
learn how to manage the emergence of rolling news channels like
France Info, CNN, etc. It was a major revolution for companies to
discover in times of crisis that their firm made news headlines
every 15 minutes on radio and television stations. Now they also
have to learn to accept that they will hear about an incident at
their company at the same time as the public, and what is more,
they will share with TV viewers the horror of the first pictures
of the catastrophe. These are terrible situations, but companies
now know how to manage them.
Today however, we have moved on from the rolling news era to
the era of continuous debate on a variety of platforms. Companies
have always been involved in debates, but the emergence of Web 2.0
has accelerated and amplified the debate. Every expert, journalist
or ordinary member of the public can raise issues and express
opinions, which then circulate widely and raise questions about
the theory offered by the company or authorities. In a way, it’s a
kind of open debate for everyone and with everyone.
As to the Pitot tubes, Air France was bombarded with
information and counter analyses from specialist sites such as
www.eurocockptit.com. Some media such as www.lefigaro.fr organised
special forums on the issue. Everyone is free to comment or
develop their own theories on the crash etc… In the face of this
influx of counter information and numerous internal Air France
documents published in the newspapers and on the Net, the company
must adopt a consistent and confident approach otherwise it will
fail to support its arguments or convince. This has not always
been the case.
Internal communications, internal communications, internal
In a crisis situation, decision-makers often focused on
external pressures. Above all, crisis cells fear media pressure
and the need to speak to camera – all of which are quite
legitimate concerns. But, it’s important not to forget internal
pressures and to treat them with as much or even greater care than
When top management are under the spotlight, they must prove to
partners and employees that they are in control of the situation.
Either they succeed and the crisis becomes an opportunity and
management are consolidated in their position (except when the
finger is pointed at them), or they stammer their way through the
crisis and are instantly blamed. This paves the way for the
scenario of extreme destabilization.
But during a crisis, and just like the media, employees’ faith
in management depends above all on the quality of the relationship
between them. The better the relationship, the more management can
hope to have employee support during the crisis and vice versa.
This may be what is happening at Air France. The pressure of
the different pilot unions, via their communications, is above all
about safety but it also reflects a power struggle and test of
strength within the company. Crises have the knack of bringing
hostilities to the surface however old (dating back to a merger or
acquisition). And it is perhaps this too that is being revealed in
the communications on the crisis that Air France is experiencing.
The company’s internal communications team faces a huge
challenge. In less than 10 years, Air France has experienced two
horrific crashes (Concorde, AF 447). This has had a profound
effect on the company, in particular through its employees who
have lost friends and colleagues.
But in addition to the trauma, these employees are also
presented with a total change of perception. Within the space of a
few years, they’ve gone from being proud to work for one of the
most reliable and efficient companies in the world, to having
doubts about a company whose slightest technical incident is now
examined in detail and reported in the media.
After the end of the iconic Concorde, which was the focus of
pride for every employee; and the departure of former CEO
Jean-Cyril Spinetta in January 2009 which, like every departure of
this kind marks the end of an era; and the questions about the
Pitot tubes and therefore indirectly about the company’s safety
policy; what common factor can employees hang on to and rally
round even as new issues arise from the air transport crisis?
This is one of the major challenges that the company will have
to tackle in terms of communications, and internal communications
Hédi Hichri Account Director Fleishman-Hillard France
Magazine de la communication de crise et sensible.
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