On Sunday, June 3rd, a passenger plane belonging to Dana Airlines Limited carrying 153 people crashed into a densely populated suburb of Lagos, Nigeria. A heart-rending tragedy and a lot of questions have since cropped up. With the assistance of the United States, the Nigerian Government began an investigation.

Public relations uses science and art for crisis management

I have been studying how Dana Air is managing the obvious crisis it is engulfed in. Prior to this incident, ratings for Dana were fairly good (not sure if cheaper flight rates contributed to that).

The times, however, have turned for Dana Air. Its operating license has been withdrawn, money and goodwill have and are being lost.

[This is a guest post from Adedamola Jayeola, a public relations practitioner who writes from Lagos, Nigeria. You can follow him on Twitter @OtunbaJaiyejeje]

I remember seeing Dana Air’s Director of Flight Operations, Captain Oscar Wason, on TV (he blamed bird-strike by the way) and also reading about the executive team paying a visit to the crash site. An information office was set up by them some 24 hours after the incident (if it is still in operation, I am not certain). This is as much as I have felt of their crisis management.

My point is this, though: it seems corporations in my part of the world still miss the point.

A friend asked me what I would do if I was the public relations executive of Dana Air at this ‘trying’ time and I simply told him I would resign my appointment. Oh yes! Strange? Nah, not really.

Accidents happen. Yes, we know that. However, it seems closer to unprofessionalism and business ignorance when accidents that are, especially by scientific means, totally predictable and preventable somehow become labelled as “acts of destiny”.

I am of the sincere opinion this was one crash that was an example of ‘issues’ waiting to escalate or degenerate into a ‘crisis’.

It brews curiosity about the role of the in-house public relations practitioner.

My analysis of public relations agencies and reputation managers in Lagos strikes a notice: most have worked with the same clients over time. Therefore, it is not unusual to find a single company employing the services of close to four public relations firms even in the space of 24 months. It baffles me.

Does it mean these corporations do not have in-house personnel? Well, some do and some do not, but let’s assume they do. The serious ones might even have independent, well financed and established PR departments. However, PR agencies and consultancies (most of who work underground, away from the spotlight) still occupy that ‘spin doctor’ space with the magic touch. Something seems to be lacking. After much analysis I came up with this theory:

I discover so many in-house corporate public relations personnel ignore the SCIENCE of public relations. They practice only the ART.

Adding rigour to public relations creativity

Errm, last time I checked, wasn’t public relations meant to be an art AND a science? Art in the aspect of creativity, communication and idea genesis? True that!

Well, but how about science? You know, the whole research and strategic planning thing? Did you say “huhn?” Yes, you heard right. So, whatever happened to the social scientists we are meant to be?

I believe so many in-house PR personnel throw to the wind the essential skill of information gathering, formative research, critical analysis and strategic planning. Essentially, this is where the PR agencies excel the most and this is why their magic wands always seems to work, always proving to be true scientists.

Public relations taking business responsibility

Ok, ok. We get it, but how does this all relate to the crash? Well, if I were to be the in-house PR executive of DANA Air, I would have simply done my job:

  • Cleaned my house. Regularly. Non-stop.
  • Ensured a prior check on the state of health of the planes we have is conducted and well documented.
  • Any lapses? I inform the dominant coalition for addressing.
  • I get issues solved.

Say, I could even run these checks, do my homework and make my results a publicity drive for the company! “Hey, guess what, we got good planes, we just updated them.” Wouldn’t that be splendid for business?

I have heard an aviation technical person say an aircraft is just as good as its last maintenance, something never to be toyed with. Well, talk about ROI baby!

Public relations’ organisational influence

Seriously, yet again, these roles and responsibilities further reinforce the importance of public relations having a say in the board room. Its very essence is a management discipline.

The PR guy’s days of being little more than the fireman are long over.

Guess what? I think I can comfortably predict what Dana Air would do:  reactivity over proactivity.

They would recruit the services of a PR agency which, obviously knowing its onions, would wield its scientific substance in research and strategic organisation to try and rescue whatever is left of any corporate reputation the airline has left. Please don’t get me wrong, I love the agency approach and even look forward to working in one someday, but for the in-house PR person, this is yet another lesson.

At times stamping your feet to get the job done might not always mean more money as return on investments in the immediate. However, it will probably mean a better name for the company and, in this case, enrich and even save the lives, families, hearts and dreams of your clientele, ‘goods’ that are totally priceless.

Proactivity over reactivity.

What do you think about Adedamola’s comparison between the art and science of public relations? Or his thoughts on the value that PR agencies can add to organisations, particularly those in crisis? What about his thoughts on PR people taking a greater business responsibility than ‘just’ communication?