15 April 2024
manchester airport crisis communications plan

Manchester Airport Group crisis communications plan works

The aviation, leisure and tourism industry has suffered more than most during the pandemic but Manchester Airport Group was heavily targeted by the UK media for the travel issues that arose when the pandemic was lifted and travel numbers began to return to pre-pandemic levels. We take a look at what happened and how Manchester Airport successfully rolled out its crisis communications playbook.

The background to the crisis

During the pandemic Manchester Airport Group was said to have received over £100m in financial support, via areas such as the UK Government’s furlough scheme, in order to help it survive the drop in business caused by lockdowns and the associated halt in tourism. On top of this the airport was forced to make the tough decision to let go around 900 directly employed staff alongside a further 1500 third party employees who were made redundant from companies operating at the flight hub.

Manchester Airport Group has Manchester City Council as its majority shareholder, to whom it is believed to have paid around £600m in dividends in the five years running up to the pandemic.

The Crisis Communications issue

When air travel opened up again, the airport was left heavily short staffed and this led to passengers having to wait hours to get through customs and security checks. The airport faced difficulties in replacing the staff it had been forced to make redundant because of a combination of the length of time it takes staff to get interviewed, security cleared and in position as well as experiencing the same buoyant recruitment market as the rest of the UK market place which reduced the pool of people available and looking for work.

The queue’s and issues slowly built to the point where in late March and early April 2022 multiple negative stories began to circulate across the UK online and offline and broadcast media. Although this has not been verified to us here at CrisisCommunicationsPlaybook, the week commencing April 4th seems to have been the point at which the Crisis Communications plan was rolled out. This was most likely because of the anticipated spike in the number of travellers looking to get away for the Easter holidays.

The Crisis Communications plan Manchester Airport seemingly used

In our opinion, the Manchester Airport crisis comms plan worked really well and here are some of the key elements that bring us to that conclusion.

There was clearly an escalation plan and process and the airport owners looked to make swift and decisive moves. The most high profile move was the announcement that the Managing Director of the airport, Karen Smart, left her position. Obviously, we don’t know if this was quite as voluntary as the accompanying media release suggested but it is crisis comms 101 to announce a senior person is leaving, in order to demonstrate to the press that the issue is being taken seriously.

As every good Crisis Comms book will advise, the airport leant on its considerable stakeholder support network, in this case Manchester City Council who, it was announced, would be helping to speed up the recruitment process in order to get staff appointed and on-boarded as quickly as possible. It was not just the City Council who helped out, Greater Manchester Police also deployed some of their staff to help carry out some of the security roles at the airport.

So the airport had immediately ticked off the escalation and stakeholder side of the crisis communications plan and the next strong move was a full and comprehensive statement made by the CEO of the Manchester Airport Group, Charlie Cornish.

The statement was really well written in terms of being apologetic from the outset, factual and full of empathy. The statement also made it clear that whilst a great deal of work was being done to fix the situation, there were still huge stumbling blocks to overcome and this allowed the airport some wiggle room in terms of being able to say “well, we expected further issues” should the crisis escalate further.

In addition to this, the statement made it clear that this was not just a Manchester Airport Group issue, it was an issue that affected the whole travel and aviation industry, again, a smart tactic by the communications team.

The statement ended, as it began, with a sincere sounding apology. Again, another excellent move.

The de-escalation of the Manchester Airport crisis

The statement was the icing on the crisis comms cake in that, whilst a few more negative articles appeared after it was issued (most notably in The Daily Mail 4 days after the statement was issued), overall the negative media coverage began to dissipate.

Fast forward to nearly 3 weeks later and the number of negative articles that only mention Manchester Airport have reduced dramatically and now they are merely mentioned in passing as part of wider travel issues across the UK.

What next for the Manchester Airport Communications team?

With the crisis now in decline, what is the next task for the Airport’s Crisis Communications and Public Relations team? The job will now move to online reputation management* and removing the negative articles down from page one of Google for brand related search terms.

This in itself is no easy or quick task and will need a whole host of positive tactical executions in order to see the results that they need. They can certainly expect this to be a one year plus strategic campaign as it is not as simple as just hammering out a few positive stories.

All in all the entire Manchester Airport Group Communications Team deserve huge credit for the way that they have handled the situation.

Crisis Comms Score:

Risk 6/10

Results: 10/10

*shameless plug to 10Yetis (the agency this blog author owns) online reputation services.

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