Handling Crisis Management Communication is one of the most skilled activities in an organisation’s operation. Creating an opportunity out of a crisis is even a bigger challenge which faces PR professionals on a regular basis.
Whenever Crisis Management Communication comes to discussion, I immediately remember the late Salim Beik Salam, a unique personality and a big name in the Middle East and International Aviation industry during the second half of the twentieth century. He was a leader of Arab Air Carriers Organisation (AACO) since its start and was the President and Chairman of Middle East Airlines- AirLiban (MEA). Prior to becoming MEA’s President in 1982, he was the airline’s Executive Vice President of Public Relations.
Joining MEA as a management trainee upon graduation in 1980, I had the honour of meeting this leader in the Aviation Industry and master of Public Relations. Many stories have been written about his achievements at AACO, at MEA and in the industry in general; however, what I want to write about in this article is a direct experience where I, the young new graduate then and one of my colleagues were the subject of a “PR crisis”.
I will start from the beginning. During the first years of joining MEA, I was studying at the American University of Beirut (AUB) on a part time basis for my MBA. In 1983, I was taking a course in Organisation Behaviour with an American professor who was the Chairman of the Business school at that time. The assignment for one of the projects was to organise ourselves in groups of two, and to study the organisation we work for and assess its strengths and weaknesses in terms of management structure, policy, human resources, employee relations, etc. It was an assignment like any other one, with my dear friend Nasra who was a colleague at MEA and at the same time a class mate at the University, naturally being my project partner. Nasra worked on the strengths, I worked on the weaknesses… As two hard working students we worked by the book and left no stone unturned, systematically following the requirements, and handing the project on time. Then we forgot about it waiting for the professor to set a date for its discussion. One day, to our astonishment, we got to discover that MEA management was discussing our study! How come, how did they get the study, we discussed it with no one- we just handed it to the professor as a case study as part of our course. What we learnt is that the professor sent the Chairman and President Salam a copy of the study and invited him and his management team to discuss it in our class at AUB. I thought it was a good idea! But the expression on Nasra’s face told me there was something wrong. I got to know that there was a problem in discussing company’s weaknesses. Well, no organisation is perfect; however, the fact of discussing this in public was not a comfortable mission for the management. Nasra and I were hearing the feedback through the grapevine, and things did not look good… we prepared ourselves for the worst. I felt bad for my dear friend who had nothing to do with the writing of the weaknesses, but was in the same pickle with me.
The day of the discussion came. Salim Beik was there, together with three of his management team including Amin Najjar, the Executive Vice President of Human Resources at the time. All were graceful in their presence, and Salim Beik with his usual calm, had that natural charming smile on his face radiating warmth and trust, and did not seem to be disturbed by the topic of discussion. The students on the other hand, were cornering Salim Beik and his team with challenging questions focusing on the weaknesses, as direct as a non diplomatic youth would be- in the same style that I have written my part! Nasra and I were exchanging glances, thinking that we might need to look for a new job next day! During the discussion, each question was dealt with by the Chairman and his team in the most professional manner, explaining why the weakness is there and what is being done to overcome it. With each point discussed, we learnt more about Management, Organisation Theory, Company policy, Human Resources and other management domains coming directly from a master in those domains. This was the objective of our professor when he invited the team to the discussion, and thus achieved the purpose. Equally important, we learnt about Public Relations and Public image. It is about having an honest positive attitude, a strong belief in the organisation’s potentials, and the determination to improve any given situation. The students including us were dazzled by Salim Beik’s charisma, his knowledge and his ability to turn all the weaknesses into opportunities for promoting his organisation.
At the end of the session, Amin Najjar approached us. To our surprise he congratulated us on our work and study, however, advised us to discuss with him in future any related topic prior to submitting to any party. Very grateful we were indeed! We strongly agreed with him! We still kept our jobs, we were recognised by our management, and MEA’s image was soaring high as usual. It was a win-win situation for all concerned.
The lesson gained: In a critical situation, first try not to panic! Second: Work on the points to use for gaining a good PR opportunity.
Randa Saab Smith