Most everybody involved in airport social media knows Akron-Canton Airport–the CAK team is certainly a trend-setter when it comes to building a brand via social channels. Turns out that Team CAK is pretty adept at using social media for something much more fundamental: crisis management.
Today’s big CAK social media messages were supposed to be about free t-shirts.
Then, as Steve Earle would put it, the rain came down.
CAK Senior VP and Chief Marketing & Communications Officer Kristie Van Auken’s day started with a 6AM phone call from CEO Rick McQueen. “He said, ‘I think you better get down here,'” Van Auken recalled during a brief chat this afternoon.
Press accounts like this one tell a detailed, consistent story of what happened — CAK was forced to close for several hours due to a flooded basement. This post is about how those stories got out, and how CAK rolled out and executed its crisis communications plan.
As soon as key personnel were in the loop, the airport’s leadership walked through the situation and quickly realized that pumping the water out of the basement would require closing the terminal. Once the morning bank of flights was gone, the airport powered down–it was about 8:15AM.
“This definitely qualified as a crisis,” Van Auken said.
CAK’s communications team went into action, gathering facts for a press release to get out ASAP. Getting the word out would require some extra effort, however–a powered-down airport meant very limited access to oft-taken-for-granted tools like email. Van Auken decided that Communications Coordinator Ryan Hollingsworth would coordinate best from her (fully powered) home.
Meanwhile, CAK tapped a local agency and set up a media hotline, feeding the person manning the desk with enough information to keep inquiring reporters informed. Van Auken joined other colleagues at the airport, where passengers were given bottled water and updates via bullhorn.
It was clear from the start that this story was big enough to warrant outreach. (Closing airline terminal without anyone finding out = hard.) So Team CAK turned its eyes (and ears) to social media-ville.
“We wanted to first go in and see what people were saying,” Van Auken said. Thankfully, it was pretty quiet–CAK still had time to get ahead of the story. “We decided it was such a big deal, we would push it on social [platforms] too.”
Van Auken told Hollingsworth–the one most often behind the airport’s Twitter handle–to start pushing out what they knew via Twitter. Facebook–a huge part of CAK’s overall marcom strategy–would wait. Explained Van Auken: “Twitter is often about people who are in the building experiencing us right now.” Besides, it’s a news-delivery engine–reporters tweet, re-tweet and follow on Twitter much more than they engage via Facebook.
The tweets started at about 9:45AM, minutes after the release–drafted at home by Hollingsworth–was out, and the media was fully in the loop. Hollingsworth had to use a third-party email system, Constant Contact, to push the release out because she didn’t have access to her normal PR toolkit. Luckily, she had a copy of her media list handy.
Wondering why CAK prioritized getting a release to reporters when its social reach is so strong? “They have a much broader reach than we do,” Van Auken acknowledged. “Our reach is pretty strong, but it’s still not big enough.” CAK representatives talked to the local press, major outlets in Cleveland, and national staples including Reuters and CNN.
With the release out, CAK made sure to keep information flowing on Twitter. The airport updated its release three times. Each time, it made sure the Twitterverse knew. This served two purposes: one, it increased reach. Two, it continued to feed a key communication channel.
About an hour after CAK first started tweeting on the situation, the first Facebook post went up. At 11:30AM, the airport was back open. By this afternoon, post clean-up photos were on Facebook and Twitter.
Ten hours after Van Auken got the you’d-better-come-quick call, she and Hollingsworth graciously recounted their day to AirportIMC. Despite the freshness of the events, there were already a few lessons learned. The main one: the hour or so between the terminal closure and the first communication about it to the outside world was too much time.
“There was a lag,” Van Auken said. “We did need to do something [more quickly] to inform people in the building and the media.”
Gathering facts takes time and getting it right is most important, regardless of how long it takes. Van Auken believes that getting a better handle on how to manage communications without on-site Internet access or powered phones will save time next time. More specifically, team members must be given what they need to work quickly and productively away from the office. Having the ability to log in to your server from home does little good if the building housing that server is sans power.
Overall, Van Auken said that CAK’s communications plan worked well. News stories were detailed and consistent; one reporter, upon being called back, said she had everything she needed thanks to CAK’s tweets and the information they linked to. Passengers were kept in the loop, and the listening on social media didn’t turn up a single complaint.
They never did give away any t-shirts, though.
(Thanks tons to Kristie and Ryan for taking time out to share their story so soon after it all went down. They both wanted me to acknowledge the huge team of folks who made sure flights kept moving this morning, and then helped to quickly get the airport back to normal after the shutdown. Airlines, tenants, the CAK staff, the controllers who stayed aloft in an air conditioning-less tower, the local safety officials who had to inspect the terminal, the patient passengers affected by the situation…the list goes on. A raise of the glass to all. –/sb)
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