David Kirkpatrick

Crisis Communication: The first 48 hours of 9/11 from inside American Airlines headquarters

September 9th, 2011

Tony Wright, founder and CEO, WrightIMC, had a very unique view of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. — he worked for Weber Shandwick on the American Airlines account, helping with corporation communications and interactive marketing. One of his key responsibilities was optimizing AA.com for search.

“When 9/11 happened, it was an all-hands-on-deck type of thing at Weber Shandwick. [American Airlines] called us because they needed help and support,” explained Tony.

He immediately drove over to the Fort Worth, Texas, airline headquarters and began tracking news about the event and his client.

The first few hours

I don’t know if you remember that day. The entire Internet went down because everybody and their dog started searching for what was going on. We were trying to keep the website up. We were actually working with their (American Airlines) internal department to make sure we had the bandwidth to support it. We didn’t, but we were able to keep [online connectivity] up intermittently

Tony and his team were tasked with monitoring the entire Internet for rumors, and for information about the airline that wasn’t true. At this early stage, no one knew exactly what happened. Many suspected the event was a terrorist attack, but no one knew for certain.

Keeping inaccuracies off of the Internet was an important role because CNN reporters were going online, finding rumors at airline-industry focused websites, and live reporting the unfounded speculation.

Manually tracking the Web

We were charged with putting all of that (rumors and speculation) out. You know, compared to today, it was very, very rudimentary monitoring. I literally took a team of about ten people and gave them all assignments of about 25 different websites to just keep going to and hitting F5 or refresh. We didn’t have any of the automated monitoring tools now out there. Not even Google Alerts was around.

Because of previous marketing work with online industry influencers, Tony and his team knew where to find these people, where they hung out online. The monitoring included these industry sites and bulletin boards, sites frequented by American Airlines’ most important customers, and major news sites. In the “war room” at the airline the television was kept on, tuned to CNN.

Duct-tape and string communication

The Internet was not the only communications system overwhelmed that day. Tony’s Texas-based team was able to get an open line to Weber Shandwick’s New York office by reaching the CEO’s cell phone. He plugged his phone in, left it in his office and the entire New York team would gather around the cell phone for updates from Texas.

The first two days …

I spent 48 hours doing nothing but monitoring and taking in reports from different people. I didn’t go to bed. I didn’t go home. It was kind of funny because the next day after the first 48 hours was over, I actually had scheduled a meeting with the Interactive Marketing team at AA.com.

I went to that meeting and I hadn’t gone to sleep. They insisted on having the meeting, not because they really wanted to have the meeting, but they knew that I was also in the Corporate Communications side, and that I knew what was going on.

Tony said although the effort to keep rumors under control was mostly successful, some did get out, such as that a flight attendant was involved in the attack.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation also set up camp at AA’s Corporate Communications headquarters to monitor everything the airline was putting on the Internet about the incident, because that team was privy to much more information than the public at that time.

You can’t plan for everything

Tony said American Airlines had plans for about any crisis scenario imaginable, literally phone book-sized crisis communications plans outlining who responds, who takes what role, etc.

The one plan the airline did not have in place was what to do when those people couldn’t get to the site of the crisis. After the attack, the airlines were all grounded and American could not get its crisis team to New York by air to console families and engage in other personal activities.

The best and most careful crisis plans can be derailed by the unforeseen element. As a national carrier, American Airlines never even considered the possibility its own planes would be grounded. With this in mind, what crisis communications assumptions are you making about your company and capabilities? It’s impossible to account for every potentiality, but it’s always a good idea to question those assumptions.

Reflections on a sad and difficult day

One of the saddest moments of my career still to this date was, and I know this sounds real strange, but I was in charge of the corporate website so I was the first person to see the list of passengers on the plane, and I posted that to the website that day.

The CEO of American Airlines was very, very busy, so I ended up ghostwriting his response that was posted on the website with his approval, and making sure that it included all the messages that we wanted it to say.

I think we even put a link to the FBI to give tips because customer service reps at American were fielding tips on what people saw. We wanted to make sure that those tips were being handled properly, going to the FBI instead of American Airlines customer service reps.

Photo credit: United States Marine Corps

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David Kirkpatrick

About David Kirkpatrick

David is a reporter for MarketingSherpa and has over twenty years of experience in business journalism, marketing and corporate communications. His published work includes newspaper, magazine and online journalism; website content; full-length ghosted nonfiction; marketing content; and short fiction. He served as producer for the business research horizontal at the original Office.com, regularly reporting on the world of marketing; covered a beat for D/FW TechBiz, a member of the American City Business Journals family; and he provided daily reporting for multiple LocalBusiness.com cities. David’s other media and corporate clients include: USA Today, Oxford Intelligence, GMAC, AOL, Business Development Outlook and C-Level Media, among many others.

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  1. Sandye
    October 9th, 2012 at 16:18 | #1

    My husband was at AA then in Corporate Communications. Here is a link to an article he wrote a year after 9/11: Five Rules for Communicating in a Crisis, http://webpages.charter.net/sandyet/mickdoherty/features/eyeseptember2002.htm

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