American Airlines’ bankruptcy communication did ‘a good job’

A look at why this corporate communicator gives the airline high marks.

American Airlines’ parent, AMR Corp., filed for bankruptcy on Nov. 29. No doubt, its communication team busted its hump all weekend to produce public and other statements that now we will put under the microscope.

There are three things to remember about crises such as this one.

1. This isn’t really a crisis. A plane crash is a crisis. A hijacking is a crisis. This is a financial/legal action that doesn’t mean anything to current operations.

2. The lawyers and courts are in charge 100 percent. That’s why in at least two of the FAQ documents listed at www.aa.com/restructuring, we get answers like:

“We remain deeply committed to meeting your travel needs with the same standards of safe, secure and reliable service, and intend to maintain a strong presence in domestic and international markets. As we and all airlines routinely do, we will continue to evaluate our operations and service, assuring that our network is as efficient and productive as possible.”

It has to say it like this, because it doesn’t actually know, at this point, what it’ll need to do to get the bankruptcy trustee to set it free. The court has to determine whether AA has revamped its business enough to have a reasonable shot at success. With debt and cost at the top of the “why we went bankrupt” list, it’ll need to make some cuts. Strike that, a lot of cuts.

3. There’s a difference between communicating to sell tickets and communicating to meet demands of the lawyers and courts. Expect a quiet period coming up. Lawyers prefer to clam up when not legally required to speak up. The trick is to keep people buying tickets without promising the airline will be around in a year, or whenever. They don’t know whether they’ll be successful at reorganizing the company or not.

All in all, I think AA did a good job, considering the many constituencies apart from customers and employees they have to satisfy. A few specifics:

  • The link to the restructuring communications is right on the home page, not hidden away. I like that when I went looking to see what the airline had to say, I didn’t have to hunt around.
  • It segmented the FAQs on the restructuring page to link up with different interested parties (audiences, constituencies, publics, take your pick), and used PDFs, no doubt for simplicity and speed.
  • Its Facebook page contains not only links to information, but also a video message from Tom Horton, chairman, president and CEO of AMR Corp. I could cavil a bit about the “standard” sort of language Horton uses, but see item #2 above for a possible explanation. Also, the airline seems to be responding to Facebook comments, though on a limited basis, and then mostly pointing people to FAQs.
  • @AmericanAir looks like business as usual for the customer relations team. Conversations (at least replies to people) as well as pointing to FAQs.

What’s next? I’d say keep doing what you’re doing for as long as the lawyers let you. And, fasten your seat belts. It’s a long flight back to normal.

Sean Williams is founder of Communication AMMO, Inc.

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