Sunday, 24 February 2013

The Emirates A380 Door Problem - A Communications Lesson?

Daily Mail's dubious claim about NHS dentistry
 (Photo credit: engineroomblog)
The Daily Mail is a massively popular newspaper in the UK and also boasts the world's top online news site, with over 100 million visits. It does what it does remarkably well, catchy attention-getting headlines combine with a tone of moral outrage that nicely captures the sentiments of the British 'man in the street'.

So 'terror at 27,000 feet' is a very Mail story - and that's precisely what it served up on February 15th with a story that a door 'blew open' on an Emirates A380. As the headline tells us: "Terror at 27,000ft: Crew plug gap in super jumbo jet door with blankets and pillows stuck together with gaffer tape after it 'blows open' during the flight."

The whole story's stood up on the testimony of British tourist David Reid and taken at face value, it's awful. Terrified crew hiding under their chairs, the atmosphere visible through the gap in the door, cabin pressure drop, freezing conditions and yet despite all this the pilot decided to carry on flying. Horrendous.
"...the door in business class came an inch and a half ajar, leaving a gaping hole, said Mr Reid"
It's only when you start to read the comments left by readers you might have a different perspective on the story that rings rather more factually than the story itself. They point out that the A380's doors can't actually open in-flight as they open inwards and are fixed by their shape 'like a plug' and that any pressure drop at this altitude would have caused the oxygen masks to automatically deploy which the images in the story clearly show has not been the case. They, reasonably, point out that a door open by a fraction at 27,000 feet would suck out any blankets being used to plug the gap and they also make the point that crew can't actually hide under their chairs - one of the more colourful lines in a pleasantly lurid story. Oh - and cold air wouldn't come into the cabin, air would escape. And so on.

As Crikey's Ben Sandilands points out, the "Emirates A380 door explosion story is rubbish." Notably, two Australian websites that gaily parroted the story have since taken it down.

The Mail's reader comments are remarkable for the fact they have been 'rated' by other readers using the Mail's comment rating system - the more sensible ones have been promoted by over two thousand people. And while thousands more have rated other comments criticising the story to the top of the comments pile, over five thousand 'liked' the story - and over ten thousand tweeted it.

Well, it's too good not to share, really, isn't it? Even if it is clearly bunkum.

In all, over 770 people commented on the story, of whom the majority (and the majority of 'upwards' rated comments) are negative about the story being told, correct its factual basis and criticise the Mail for the 'standard of journalism' it represents. The Mail has closed comments now.

The Mail's pieceis an excellent example of not letting the truth get in the way of a good story - Emirates' statement is pretty clear, although perhaps a little disjointed.

The Mail quotes Emirates as saying ‘We can confirm there was a whistling noise emanating from one of the doors on the A380 upper deck on flight EK384 between Bangkok and Hong Kong on Monday, February 11. At no point was the safety of the flight in jeopardy.’ 

That statement was later updated (and the Mail is at pains to make the fact it was later updated) to include, "At no time during the flight did one of the upper deck doors open. There was also no loss in cabin pressurisation at any time during the flight. The noise from the door was caused by a small dimensional difference between the inflated door seal and the door lower frame striker plate, when the door is in the closed position. This is currently under investigation in conjunction with Airbus. Emirates have now fixed the problem. The blankets were placed around the door to abate the whistling sound emanating from the door, not to prevent the door from opening. There was no point during the incident where the safety of the flight was in jeopardy. In addition, the green light next to the door does not represent that the door is open. It is an Attendant Indication Panel and is used for communication information for the Cabin Crew."

This statement is given right at the end of the story, after all the damage has been done. No matter how ringing the denial, the Mail's piece is structured to deliver its 'terrifying ordeal' sucker punch before any factual statement from Emirates is made.

It's not a nice situation to be in - and it is one I have been in more times than I care to recall - when you get those incoming calls from newspapers - particularly the UK press. You've got to get onto the story fast, finding out whatever facts you can internally before deciding quite what to do externally. You have to check your facts scrupulously - a burden the journalist (as you can see from the above) doesn't necessarily have to bear. And then you have to decide quite what you're going to say in response to the story. When you've got a newspaper that reaches 100 million people, 'no comment' is rarely going to be the solution. But then getting into a point by point argument isn't smart, either - you're never going to get your point by point rebuttal in the front of the story and you're not going to stop the story running, either. Even if it's clearly rubbish.

One of the interesting aspects of communications in the online age is the role of communities - the reader comments provide plenty of rebuttal of the factual basis for the story - the Internet is famously self-correcting. The other one is speed - you don't even have the luxury of a few hours and the burden on the communicator is consequently multiplied, get to the facts, check them, consult, decide on a response, craft that response and have a follow-up plan in place. As you're doing this, the journalist will be pressuring you as much as possible - not only do they want to break their story first, but a harried and panicking comms guy can often be a journalist's best friend.

The key is to try and make one definitive statement that is as crisp and monolithic as possible. This is always easier when the picture is clear and straightforward (and when your flow of information internally is fast and totally reliable) and when you are quite sure you have absolutely all of the facts.

And pick your fights - deal with the umbrella charge, don't get led into trying to nitpick your way through a story so full of holes your statement loses its authority in a tide of 'he said, she said' rebuttal.

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1 comment:

Amanius Caffeinatus Irritabilus said...

As anon said : the new "think before you speak" is "google before you tweet"..and retweet.. and exaggerate and slander.
Still , I am entertained ..this like un-aired "Airplane!" ...

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