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'Porpoising" - what does that mean?

'Porpoising'--What Does That Mean?

One of the largest media relations challenges of 1989 was created July 19th when United Airlines flight 232 cartwheeled down the runway at Sioux City Iowa's Gateway Airport, killing 112 of the 296 persons on board.

Media reports about the disaster revealed that only a very few reporters covering this accident knew much about aviation. For example, during a media briefing held soon after the crash by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) spokesman Jim Burnett, it was explained that on the way to Sioux city the crippled DC-10 aircraft went into an up and down oscillation referred to in the industry as "Porpoising," and that the pilot could not stop this "Porpoising" because the hydraulic systems had failed. The pilot, Capt. Al Haynes, had only engine thrust to control the craft. Incredibly, at least two newspapers reported that Capt. Haynes controlled the aircraft "like a porpoise." The reporters who wrote that story had no understanding of what it was they were writing.

Surprisingly, media relations communicators at the scene failed to provide sufficient background information so reporters would understand the topic they were reporting on. In the absence of any knowledgeable source, reporters frequently turned to each other in a blind-leading-the-blind situation. In one case a reporter from United Press International asked a fellow reporter "What's an aileron"? Clearly it is impossible for reporters to explain details of the story that they themselves don't understand.

During technical accidents of this nature resources personnel should be provided, in this case a technical expert (pilot or aeronautical engineer) to whom reporters could refer for technical clarification. Obviously the resource person would have to be well-spoken, well-briefed in media relations techniques, and clearly understand their background role. Providing this service would go a long way to increasing the comfort level of reporters and facilitate more positive coverage.

Why Won't They Answer US?

The second education problem was the failure of the NTSB to properly define to the media their role at the crash site. In the initial stages of an accident investigation the Safety Boards role is strictly one of gathering information, an exhaustive process which can last for months. It is only after that phase is complete that the analysis of information begins. As a result of not being advised of this process, the media were constantly pressuring officials to provide analysis or to speculate on the probable cause of the cash. The refusal of the NTSB to provide any analysis--while at the same time not really making it crystal clear why they would not--was another source of friction with the media.

A simple solution to this would be a hand-out from the NTSB outlining the stages of an investigation, what types of questions will and will not be answered in the initial stages, and why. Providing a straightforward explanation would go a long way to alleviate the concerns of the media, who sometimes felt the investigators were holding back on them.

An amateur Shows How

One of the best interviews in Sioux City was that of Iowa's State Medical Examiner, Dr. Tom Bennett. Interviewed two days after the crash, Dr. Bennett was reviewing the medical procedures regarding identification of victims. This was another topic the reporters knew virtually nothing about. Dr. Bennett took the time to explain every detail of the operation that was asked about, right down to how his office found enough truck drivers to move the necessary equipment by asking help at a truck stop. The resulting media coverage was complete, detailed and generally very positive.

Only one topic was off limits. A few reporters, looking for the sensational clip, pressed for a description of the damage to the victims. The answer, which came back nice and cool, was; "I won't be making any statement on the condition of the victims, out of respect to the next-of-kin." Incredibly, that same question was asked, one way or another, seven more times, four by the same reporter. Dr. Bennett maintained his composure and gave an identical reply all eight times. It was an effective way of denying the reporter the sensational clip while at the same time avoiding conflict with the media.

Jargon Problems

Unlike most aircraft emergencies, which are predictable and for which the crew has trained extensively, the inflight emergency encountered by Capt. Haynes was so catastrophic and the damage to the aircraft so severe that no pre-set checklist existed for the crew to follow. United Airlines, an industry leader in aircrew training, had foreseen that critical emergencies might arise for which there were no procedures. All their crews are taught communication skills such as inquiry, advocacy, and conflict resolution to ensure that in such an emergency they can work together to solve the problem.

The fact that the airline had, in effect, trained its crews to "solve the unsolvable" should have been a very positive aspect of the story. However the obvious public relations benefits of this training were lost when, in a briefing, United's Senior Vice President of Flight Operations, Capt. Hart Langer, continuously referred to the training program as the "Command Leadership Resource Management Program." As a result of this jargon, most reporters ignored a positive story because it was not properly explained to them.

Fundamental Change Necessary

Although several improvements to this particular communication response have been suggested, the simple fact is that accidents of this magnitude are very rare, and accordingly are not staffed for. This means that any reasonably sized communication staff will be simply overwhelmed by enormous events like the crash of Flight 232.

Given that it would be impractical to maintain an in-place communication staff to deal with such a rare occurrence, what alternative is there to ensure the huge demands of the media are properly looked after when the event does occur?

One proposal has been put forward by Dave Jackson, the director of public affairs for the US Department of Energy. He has suggested an industry-government joint information committee to be made up of knowledgeable communicators representing manufacturers, suppliers and appropriate government agencies. This would, in effect, be a "mutual aid" arrangement where communicators with expertise in the required areas would agree to help each other on an as-required basis.

Similar arrangements are common among police, fire and medical authorities, and exist between communicators in a few industries as well. Communicators will have to push for the establishment of these committees if they are to demonstrate they can marshall the staff necessary to be considered a fully integrated and effective part of the emergency response in a disaster.


The Sioux City experience powerfully re-emphasized the value of not assuming the other person knows what you are talking about. Most news reporters covering the crash of United 232 genuinely tried to do a good job, but were hampered both by their lack of technical knowledge and lack of access to a technical resource person.

The media relations practitioners at Sioux City were true professionals, but they were so close to their subject they sometimes could not appreciate that a reporter may not understand something that, to them, is laughably simple.

The media/media relations interplay at a technical story like an aircraft accident is yet another reminder that professional communicators who work in technical industries must have a plan in place to provide reporters with the clear-language background they will need when "that day" arrives.

Lloyd Mildon is a media relations officer with Canada Post Corporation in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He was on vacation in Iowa at the time of the accident.
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:media education in air disasters
Author:Mildon, Lloyd
Publication:Communication World
Date:Dec 1, 1989
Previous Article:Read it and believe it.
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