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On the 15th of January 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 made an emergency landing on the Hudson River, New York. On the 22nd of January 2009, the entire crew was awarded The Master’s Medal by The Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators. Everything that happened in between those two events is perhaps one of the best examples of comms, strategy, PR, collaboration and customer service within an organisation.

Within 90 minutes of the plane going down an advanced phone system was put in place to handle all of the additional incoming calls; a website dedicated to providing updated information was up and running and key terms had been bought from Google and Yahoo so people would be directed to it; the first news release was aired; a phone number had been set up for relatives of the survivors to call and find out their whereabouts; and the company’s CEO had held a press conference. Within 90 minutes.

In the hours and days that followed the crash, all passengers were issued with mobile phones and emergency credit cards so that they could pay for hotel rooms and dry clothes; they each received a letter of apology from the CEO with a cheque for $5000 and another to reimburse their air fare; and the US Airways customer service team personally delivered any valuables to passengers that had been retrieved from the plane. Later, the crew of the US Airways flight would receive a standing ovation at that year’s Super Bowl and an article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek would state that the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ would go on to be ‘a case study in how to treat customers after a crisis’.

Compare this to the situation that United Airlines found themselves in in April of this year when one of their passengers was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight. Much like those on US Airways Flight 1549, all passengers were offered a refund on their travel expenses and the CEO of the company issued an apology…eventually. But unlike US Airways, damning videos and media reports started to emerge, internet users called for a boycott of the company and the US’s compliance with the human rights act was even called into question.  

You might argue that US Airways had an advantage over United Airlines in terms of dealing with their crisis. When you think about the types of crisis that an airline may have to deal with and plan for, a crash is probably going to be the first thing that comes to mind. It is perhaps the worst thing that could possibly happen to an airline. But that’s exactly the point – the absolute worst thing happened to US Airways and they won an award.

Think about the types of crises that your organisation could potentially be faced with. Maybe the example of a plane going down is an extreme case, but just because you don’t have people’s lives in your hands, doesn’t mean you’re exempt from crisis. It didn’t take a crash for United Airlines’ reputation to go down in flames – they were still on the runway when their crisis occurred. Crisis can hit any organisation at any time – whether you’re up in the air or sat on the concourse.

When we look again at the timeline of the US Airways crash, there’s one significant event that occurred even before the passengers had boarded the plane. A few months prior to the crash, the Corporate Communications Vice President of US Airways had decided to reduce what was then a 125 page crisis communications plan to a more user-friendly, 15 page version. He had enlisted the support of US Airways executives in doing so; meaning that everyone knew exactly what would happen should a crisis occur.

Nobody wants to pre-empt a crisis and yet we all love to repeat that well known piece of wisdom from Benjamin Franklin – ‘By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail’. So rather than pre-empt, maybe we just need to prepare, and in preparing, we might even prevent.

On the 11th of July the IoIC will run a one day training course to equip communicators with the skills and knowledge to develop a crisis comms plan, handle social media during a crisis, protect your organisation's reputation and much more. Find out more and book your place here 
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