As a public relations professional, Boston-area general aviation pilot and
flight instructor, I followed the media reporting on the crash of John F.
Kennedy, Jr.'s plane with a fair amount of interest. What I saw during the
weekend of July 17-18, 1999 showed that valuable lessons had been learned by
governmental agencies since the public relations debacle of TWA Flight 800
three years ago. Except, perhaps, by TWA themselves. (See related commentary
by Boston Globe columnist Brian McGrory - TWA's icy side remains
intact on page B1 of the July 20, 1999 issue of the Globe at www.boston.com)
I first heard about the accident on Saturday morning, when I received a call
from a former flight student of mine who was finishing his Air Force pilot
training. Accident analysis has always been an important training tool in
aviation, and students and instructors routinely discuss accidents to learn
from them. Since this student had received his general aviation training
in the Boston area, he was familiar with the general aviation flight environment
of Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard. Quite coincidentally, I had been doing
some routine proficiency flying in the Boston area on Friday morning (the day of the Kennedy accident)
and saw first hand the weather that Kennedy was dealing with later that evening.
During the weekend, I monitored the major media available in the Boston area
and analyzed their coverage of the accident. Overall, I was impressed by
the public relations choreography of the various government agencies, the
relative accuracy of the information, and how quickly some media were able
to tap into informed commentators. As a pilot, I also noticed some ‘missing
parties', and a few clever ‘spins' put on some of the information. What was
abundantly clear was that lessons had been learned from the confusion and
poor handling of public relations during the TWA Flight 800 accident.
Here's a quick review of the major points of the Kennedy accident media relations
that were clearly learned from TWA Flight 800:
Don't Leave a News Vacuum
Almost immediately, the both Air Force and Coast Guard District Command in
Boston had spokesperson available. Initially, all they could provide were
bare details - the plane is missing, it took off at this time and was due
in at this time, etc. As the weekend wore on, more information was added,
and in regards to the Coast Guard, the spokesperson was upgraded from a
Lieutenant to a Rear Admiral. Rather interestingly, there was no hesitation
to say "I don't have the answer to that question." or "You are asking me
to speculate and I can't do that," throughout the weekend. The Coast Guard
continued to be the most authoritative source of information as the weekend
The important point here for anyone involved in a crisis is to be out there
immediately with whatever you have - don't leave a vacuum. This lesson was
learned from the mother of all public relations disasters, which was the
24 hour news vacuum after the 1986 Challenger disaster. NASA destroyed over
20 years of excellent media relations with that information vacuum, by
frustrating the media's requirement for information.
Two of the most noticeable players who were absent both from the briefings
and any role in providing information were the FAA and Flight Safety
International (the flight school that had trained Kennedy for his private
pilot's license). This is somewhat unusual, especially for the FAA, since
they are normally the agency that provides the media with information on
general aviation crashes, and is usually the first to have local district-office
investigators on the scene. For Flight Safety International, one can only
speculate as to why they chose not to give a press conference (which the
aircraft manufacturer did do.) Both of these ‘missing' organizations would
have faced some tough questions about Kennedy's training, common operating
practices and flight procedures, from which causal inferences could be drawn.
The media seemed not to notice their absence.
The FAA weighed in later in the week, when it was revealed that a flight
briefer at the Bridgeport Flight Service Station had taken a call from a
ramp attendant at the Martha's Vineyard Airport about a half-hour after Kennedy's
plane was expected to arrive. The FAA announced it was considering disciplinary
action against the briefer. This is somewhat odd, since the published transcript
tended to indicate that the ramp attendant's hesitant dialogue sounded like
a celebrity chaser, and if he knew enough to call Bridgeport, it would have
made more sense for him to call the Martha's Vineyard control tower and ask
them. Perhaps the briefer could have suggested that, but they have no
idea who is on the other end of the phone. (For example, I was recently flying
at Hanscom Field in Bedford, and the President (Air Force One) was due in
later that day. Someone called the tower on the radio and asked when the
"Big Boss" was due in. As if he expected they would tell him? The tower claimed
they didn't know.) Also, a half-hour differential is pretty common. Scheduling
is not that tight. In fact, a VFR flight plan that is filed remains valid
in the system until two hours after your indicated departure time. If you
don't activate (call on the radio after departure and tell the FAA to open
the flight plan) in that window, you have to re-file. Many pilots (myself
included) add an extra half-hour to the ETE (expected time enroute) on the
flight plan to allow for stronger than expected headwinds, air traffic delays,
etc. And Kennedy had not even filed a flight plan (so there would be none
in the system to check), and the ramp attendant was unsure of the tail
(registration) number of the plane. It sounds like the FAA is looking for
someone to hang out to dry.
Have a Trained Spokesperson and Stick to the Script
It was very obvious that the spokespersons for the government agencies had
been trained in media presentation skills. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Larrabee
was especially effective in his briefings. The media responded to that and
were relatively polite and well mannered in their questioning. The contrast
was especially obvious when the Chairman of the NTSB (National Transportation
Safety Board) showed up Sunday for a joint news conference. He proceeded
to lecture the media like a grade school principal, in a slightly condescending
and belligerent manner, and they returned the favor by being noticeably more
unruly. When the Admiral returned to the lectern, they calmed right down.
The military has mastered the art of the press briefing, as you might recall
from Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
Keep it Tight and Stay on Your Turf
One aspect that was very noticeable during the week end was how tightly each
agency (the Air Force, the Coast Guard, the NTSB, Massachusetts State Police,
etc.) stayed on their turf, and referred out-of-scope questions to the respective
agency. It was like being briefed by Sgt. Joe Friday from the old television
program ‘Dragnet': "Just the facts, Ma'am." This ‘information discipline'
prevents a speculative remark from one group being played off another group.
This was one area where the respective government agencies really got in
trouble in the TWA crash.
Control the Agenda and Cut it off Once You've Said All That You Have
Every press conference had almost a military-style structure that was gone
over as the briefing started, and rigidly adhered to. After the structured
briefing and a routine question and answer session, the end of the press
conferences were signaled by the ‘two question warning': once the questions
started to become redundant, it was announced that two more questions would
be taken, and that was it. This allowed the briefers to be responsive, yet
stay in control of the briefing. At one point, the Coast Guard Admiral's
aide stepped in (possibly by pre-arranged signal) and announced: "There is
time for two more questions, then the Admiral has to get on the road." He
wouldn't have done that unless he had cleared it with the Admiral in advance.
Don't Answer Hypotheticals or Speculate
Throughout the weekend and into the following week, the briefers rigidly
upheld this mantra. They would not vary from simply conveying the factual
information. At one point, one of the briefers jumped into a Q&A and
cautioned that a recovered "piece of debris" had been magically elevated
to a "piece of luggage". He was right at the time, but as it turned out later,
it was luggage. On other issues, it could walk like a duck, look like a duck,
and sound like a duck, but it was premature to call it a duck. For example,
the radar traces showed the final descent of the plane to be 2,600
feet-per-minute. Most general aviation maneuvers are done at vertical speeds
(that is climbs and descents) of 500 feet-per-minute, and an aggressive maneuver
at 1,000 feet-per-minute. The VSI (vertical speed indicator) is ‘pegged'
at 2,000 feet-per-minute. In other words, every general aviation pilot knows
that 2,600 feet-per-minute descent is and out-of-control airplane (especially
at an initial altitude of 2,500 feet), most likely in a power-on spin. But
they would not call it a duck. Not that it mattered - any pilot listening
knew what was being described, and the public was reassured that the respective
agencies were diligently performing a methodical diagnosis.
My favorite anecdote about the danger of answering hypotheticals is a question
that was posed to an Israeli prime minister. He was asked what he would do
if he was born a Palestinian. Without thinking, he replied that he would
probably be a terrorist. That off-the-cuff remark stirred an outrage, and
immediately gave some legitimacy to the Palestinian terrorist movement. I
doubt if that result was the prime minister's intention.
Consider the Audience and What They Can Understand
General aviation is pretty technical, and not easily comprehended by the
lay person, who gets most of their aviation (mis)information from the
entertainment industry. Noticeable in this regard was the CNN commentator,
Carl Rochelle, who is both a general aviation pilot and flight instructor.
His commentary was both the most accurate and informative of all the media.
There was a real effort to avoid terms such a VFR (visual flight regulations)
IFR (instrument flight regulations) and a host of other complicated terminology
and information that is routine for pilots, but that the public doesn't
This cuts both ways, however, and there were a few efforts at ‘spin' (if
you will forgive the pun.) The New Piper Aircraft Company, which manufactured
Kennedy's Piper Saratoga, gave a press briefing on Saturday
afternoon. They rolled out one of the Saratogas as a backdrop for the briefing.
I can't recall ever having a general aviation manufacturer give a press briefing
that quickly as a result of an accident. During the briefing, the president
referred questions about Kennedy's training and experience to the FAA and
Flight Safety International, the neighboring Vero Beach (Florida) facility
where he received his private pilot's licence. When asked what the safety
record was for the plane, the president responded by saying that there were
7,500 in use worldwide, and that they flew 500,000 hours each year. An
interesting statistic, perhaps, but not an answer to the question. That didn't
really matter, because the media quoted that over and over again during the
weekend. Only the Boston Globe called the NTSB and got the actual crash
statistics, which it printed on Sunday. The New Piper Aircraft president
was also asked if the airplane was too much to handle for a pilot with Kennedy's
limited experience. The president sidestepped the question, and referred
the reporter to Flight Safety International, the facility that trained Kennedy.
He also replied that the airplane had been in production since the 1960's,
and had docile handling characteristics. True to a point, but not necessarily
for a 100-hour pilot, which is what Kennedy is reported to have been. The
reporter didn't know enough to pose the question of how many 100-hour pilots
are routinely flying Saratogas. Probably very few - insurance companies take
a dim view of 100-hour pilots messing around with 300 horsepower, retractable
landing gear, a variable-pitch prop and a 166 knot (190 mph) cruise speed.
A lot has to be done, in proper order, both to fly and land a plane like
that. Those events can gang up pretty quickly on an inexperienced pilot.
Another effort at spin, or more appropriately, omission, was a narrative
provided by an ‘aviation analyst' on CNN who happened to be a former
vice-chairman of the NTSB. She proceeded to describe how the NTSB collects
information and analyzes accidents. What I noticed was notably missing was
that the agency usually constructs a forensic ‘pilot profile' of the judgement
and temperament of the pilot. In fact, the FAA and NTSB have identified six
or so personality types that have a high probability of being involved in
accidents. These profiles are routinely covered in flight instructor training
and pilot safety seminars, but were not mentioned at all in the media coverage
of the Kennedy accident.
Skip the Transparently Non-Credible Statements
The most obvious of these was the repeated insistence by the government agencies
that this crash was not receiving any special treatment, that all general
aviation accidents were treated the same way. This was repeated to the media
as late as Wednesday morning, July 21.
Please. How many general aviation accidents start with a briefing from the
Pentagon, and have a keen Presidential interest? Any savvy reporter who knew
enough to ask for a list of the last dozen or so accidents investigated and
the amount of ‘assets' devoted to them would immediately notice that the
statement was ‘non-operative', as Ollie North used to say. Even Boston
Globe columnist Adrian Walker commented on this. Walker drew a comparison
to the Lear Jet that disappeared on approach to the Lebanon (New Hampshire)
airport on Christmas Eve, 1996, and was not found for nearly three years [see Wikipedia link at end of article]. Coincidentally,
it was reported in the Boston Globe on July 21 the search for that plane
had resumed after two-and-a-half years, after a high-probability crash site
was determined by some Dartmouth College engineering students who studied
the accident for a research project. Consider that it only took two days
to pinpoint the area of the Kennedy crash, with the full resources of the
federal government. What a difference a name makes.
Another more recent disappearance was only a few months ago, and was almost
identical to the circumstances of the Kennedy flight. A Boston-area entrepreneur
had left Norwood airport in his Piper Arrow without a flight plan, and
disappeared. There was the nominal media mentions, some search-and-rescue
activities reported in the media (including some mention of radar traces),
then it disappeared from sight (no pun intended.) The USS Grasp didn't show
up in Cape Cod bay to conduct a search on that one.
Even Admiral Larrabee had to struggle when asked about the ‘special treatment'
several days into the search. He paused just a bit too long before answering,
and hence indicated the real answer. Not wanting to compromise his integrity,
I recall that he said the same "process" was being followed. That's like
saying the same "process" is followed in a third-world clinic for open-heart
surgery as is followed at Mass General. Perhaps true, but the probability
of the outcome due to the quantity and quality of the resources is far different.
The fact of the matter is that the Kennedys receive special treatment, and
that it really surprises no one. If they didn't, it would probably be demanded.
So why the charade? For the benefit of general aviation pilots? They know
better. It is simply an example of a positioning statement that was not thought
through, and causes more damage than benefit.
Finally, on July 21, President Clinton acknowledged the obvious, that he had
authorized the additional resources for the search and recovery operation.
The media coverage and public relations efforts surrounding the Kennedy crash
and resultant search and recover operations (the plane and Kennedy's body
had been located as of early Wednesday morning) demonstrate the wide and
effective use of what is known as ‘crisis communications' in the public relations
profession. The net result is a better informed public, and increased confidence
in government agencies and their effectiveness in emergency operations. But
what a price that was paid in the causal events.
1996 New Hampshire Learjet crash (from Wikipedia)