Clearing the Way for Crisis Communication: When Volcanic Ash Closed Down European Airspace, EURQCONTROL Discovered the Power of Social Media

Article excerpt

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Much has been said about how social media can help to limit the damage to a brand during a crisis. Much less has been said, however, about how using social media in a proactive way during such a crisis can change not only how the external world views a brand, but indeed how the organization understands itself.

On 14 April 2010, the eruption of the Eyjafallajokull volcano in Iceland drove the European air transport industry into uncharted skies. For safety reasons, national authorities closed large swaths of European airspace. On 15 April, as the impact began to be felt, 7,000 of the expected 23,500 flights were cancelled. By 24 April, more than 100,000 flights had been cancelled, leaving more than 10 million passengers stranded in airports around the world.

EUROCONTROL, the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation, is an intergovernmental body of 38 member states. Part of its mandate is to ensure that airlines are aware of air traffic control restrictions and that flight plans are modified accordingly When the volcano erupted, EUROCONTROL was responsible for providing states with information about where volcanic ash would be, so that they could decide whether to close their airspace.

As the only organization with an overall picture of airspace closures and the impact on flights across tile continent, EUROCONTROL--and specifically the communication team--was quickly overwhelmed by an avalanche of calls from journalists. By the end of 15 April, the first day of the crisis, the three-member team had logged more than 2,000 incoming calls and a similar number of e-mails, a pattern that was to continue for more than a week.

To deal with the huge numbers of media requests, the communication team set up regular press briefings at its Brussels, Belgium, headquarters and began to issue regular updates that were e-mailed to the media and posted on the web site. However, with concerns about the web site's ability to deal with the 5,000 percent increase in traffic, and an increasing number of phone calls and e-mails coming in from the public, the team quickly realized that they needed another way of providing information not only to journalists but also to the public.

Proactive approach

In hindsight, social media were the obvious choice. But at the time, the decision to be proactive in this space was not so immediate. Though a social media strategy that included Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn had been in place since mid-2009, use of the sites had grown slowly, and EUROCONTROL's internal audiences were unconvinced about the benefits these outlets could offer to an organization with a very technical mandate and little direct contact with the public.

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From the early hours of the crisis, EUROCONTROL's web editor and social media manager, Aurelie Valtat, was tweeting and posting on Facebook. At first the team was cautious, mainly retweeting information from the press updates that provided factual information on what airspace was closed and the number of flights affected. However, as the crisis stretched into its second and then third day, the social media effort at EUROCONTROL, as well as at other aviation organizations, took on another dimension. With call centers flooded with requests for information, and airline and airport web sites struggling to manage the sudden onslaught of visitors, the consistent use of hashtags such as #ashtag and #euva helped make social media a logical place for passengers to turn. Airlines in particular used Twitter and Facebook not only to tell passengers what was happening to individual flights but also to provide them with information about rebooking and compensation.

At EUROCONTROL, Rena Fakhouri and Herve Bechtel, the audiovisual team, began making short videos of the press briefings and posting them on YouTube, enabling journalists who couldn't be present to hear what was happening as well as see the associated visuals. …