PReparing for the worst

San Francisco Airport PIO Doug Yakel

San Francisco Airport PIO Doug Yakel

It’s probably fair to say that Doug Yakel could not have imagined that his July Fourth holiday weekend would be interrupted by a plane crash.  But as the new public information officer (PIO)–a.k.a. spokesperson– for San Francisco International Airport, he had to already be prepared for this unlikely, terrible event.

I’m presuming that when Asiana Flight 214 crashed on the runway Saturday, Yakel was among the very first people called.  And he no doubt had to move fast, getting to the airport in minutes from his nearby home so he could quickly learn every fact possible.  He went in front of reporters just two and a half hours after the accident, handling the first press briefing after the crash.  He’s likely going to have long days and sleepless nights this coming week and beyond.

Doug Yakel’s job is one of countless examples of what public relations professionals do.  These communication experts are far removed from the PR people who stage red carpet events or plan publicity tours.  Public relations people in official capacities–especially related to air travel–have planned and rehearsed for such crises so if that a rare tragedy occurs, they’re ready to effectively work with the press, the families, police and fire departments, and investigative authorities.  The often delicate messages must be tailored to each public and handled in different ways, and moment-by-moment decisions made by management in times of trouble must include strategic input provided by the PR staff.

Information in his LinkedIn background shows that Doug Yakel has been in his present job for just three months.  Prior to taking on the PIO role at San Francisco International, he held operations and management positions at smaller airports and an airline.  In the air travel industry, there’s always hope that crisis plans will never have to be used, and I’m pretty sure that Yakel didn’t anticipate being thrust into such a high profile role.  But the truth is that in PR, you must always prepare for the worst case scenario.   Your thoughts?

4 thoughts on “PReparing for the worst

  1. Lauren Brookmeyer

    Doug Yakel handled this crisis like a true professional. His strong yet calm demeanor conveyed a sense of control and leadership. Subsequent to these tragic events, the public is eager for any and all information to be disclosed right away. In the age of iPads and 4G cell phones, we have little patience to wait for information. However, it’s the job of a PR professional to be certain that information is accurate and communicated effectively, prior to being disseminated. Doug Yakel exemplified this important PIO responsibility.

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  2. Perception In Print (@SCharleme)

    Unfortunately, Asiana Airlines has been involved in two fatal crashes since its founding in 1988, not counting the crash which occurred last Saturday. It was an extremely poor judgment for the airline to allow a “trainer” pilot to land the plane despite the fact he was being directed by more experienced counterparts. I believe it’s standard procedure, but in my opinion, training should not be conducted during an actual flight. Not to mention, the flight was the co-pilot’s first trip as an instructor. Although the investigation is still ongoing, there’s no doubt in my mind that crash landing was a result of pilot error. Furthermore, following the crash, the airline posted its first press release on its website which read like a grocery list with no discernible expression of sympathy for the two perished victims, the severely injured or family members. Definitely, a less than stellar start. A display of sympathy is crisis 101.

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  3. Bert Cunningham

    Yakel was calm, cool, composed and credible. He did his job very well. He also did his job as a facilitator of information from other sources very well. It was his job to make sure the mayor, the fire chief, who was extraordinary, and the FBI representative all had an appropriate opportunity, and set up, to deliver their key messages, e.g., the FBI message that the crash was not caused by terrorism. (With relations between North and South Korea at a potential flash point, it was crucial that that issue be defused ASAP.) The chair of the NTSB also did a great job at her presser in D.C. before that agency’s Go Team headed west. She has a reputation for not suffering fools and she demonstrated that very diplomatically by turning aside the blurted out question: “Was it pilot error?” That’s exactly the kind of question – premature – that needs to be turned aside by any credible spokesperson or person publicly representing his or her institution. And it needs to be done without rancor, which she did. There will be plenty of PR lessons – good and bad – to learn from this tragic accident. But one personal emergency planning lesson we should all take away from the crash is to listen to the safety instructions delivered prior to takeoff. Having that kind of knowledge in a similar situation, recall the “Miracle on the Hudson,” could save one’s life and those of others. Stay tuned to the NTSB. They will now be the primary follow-up voice going forward.

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  4. Wendy

    The airport must have complex plans in place and conduct disaster drills but I agree – this was a PR challenge. I watched his first media session and could appreciate the tough spot he was in immediately following the crash — with little to no info until the investigators could get on the scene. I was impressed with his composure and ability to vary his responses to basically say, “we do not yet have that information.” All they really knew was the obvious. Where he/they fell short was approx. 2 hours after the crash, they could not provide a phone number for families to call for more info/to find out if their loved ones were safe. I view that as a priority – something to work on. Disaster plans always need to be reviewed, critiqued and updated after an event.

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