This blog is about the relationship between organizations and the people who work for them. And, it’s dedicated to the millions of people around the world who go to work every day wanting to do a great job.
September 11, 2001 and the days that followed were terrible times. Today, as the world marks this 10th anniversary, there will be many remembrances and stories. As a professional communicator working in the aerospace industry during those dark days, I learned a lot. This is my story – a small story about a big event.
September 11, 2001.¬†Bombardier Aerospace headquarters, Dorval, Quebec.
8:48. Our VP Corporate Communications hurries out of his office and gathers, his Communications Directors including me – Director, Employee Communications, together: ‘Did you hear?’, ‘An explosion at the World Trade Centre’, ‘Some report said it was a plane.’
8:50: We’re in our ‘war’ room transfixed by what we see on a tv screen that covers one whole end of the boardroom. The first network television reports and images of the World Trade Center in flames. “No way it was a plane.” Moments later we learn it is a plane and see images of the plane’s crash and the explosion – played and replayed in what seemed like an endless loop. Early reports say the aircraft was a¬†Cessna¬†or other small business aircraft.
“Was it one of ours?” “Looks like a Learjet.” “Might be a Challenger.” No one even suggests it might be a passenger aircraft.¬†We get our senior engineer on the phone to see if he can confirm if it’s one of ours. Not sure.
Potential public relations nightmare.¬†
9:03. By now the CEO and a few members of the executive join us from their offices down the hall.¬†We, and several millions, watch live as a second plane crashes into the south face of the World Trade Center. Shock. Disbelief.
We knew this was no accident. Chilling.¬†In the next minute, news confirms the ‘weapon’ was a large passenger aircraft.
It’s not one of our planes. Momentary relief.
The VP HR and his senior Director arrive. Where are our people? Was anyone in, or near, the towers? Phone calls and e-mails to Bombardier ¬†networks around the world.¬†
Our CEO¬†leaves us to go and call his family who live in lower Manhattan just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Phones are down. Calls to our own families wherever they were.
Our communications focus shifts to employees and their families. ¬†
9:39: A report of an explosion at the Pentagon.
By 9:45. The executive team is with the CEO in his office to hear that US Airspace has been completely closed down. Security lock down of our floor.
Glimmers of an industry-wide crisis that will re-frame our communications efforts for months, if not years.
By 10.¬†Reports that our production lines in North America [Montreal, Wichita and Toronto] have stopped. Employees want to go home to their families. ¬†They want to know what’s happening and expect us to provide the ‘news’.
Employees become, and will remain, the communications priority over the coming weeks.¬†How to be empathetic as we all go through this uncertainty together and get and keep production back on track. ¬†Everyone of us is afraid. ¬†And we have jobs to do. ¬†
Even though the field is asking for it, Corporate Communications cannot replace the feed of real time news available directly from the networks.We don’t have any tvs or radios on the plant floors. “Get some!” It is also clear this is time for real visible leadership. ¬†Our team does not let us down.
10:03. A United Airlines aircraft crashes into a field southeast of¬†Pittsburgh¬†in¬†Somerset County, Pennsylvania
Flashback to June 2001. Bombardier Aerospace celebrates 100 years in aviation by launching a new brand – “Ideas that fly” at the largest airshow in the world. Le Bourget, 2001, is our most successful airshow ever. We confirm the most aircraft sales. The Corporate Communications team, with the help of our colleagues in the field, get the most positive media coverage ever. And, for the first time ever we’d engaged our employees in this essential moment in our business cycle using unique real-time reporting and employee stories from the site. The new brand was designed to highlight our technical expertise and to humanise the experience. The “We make it fly” internal tagline resonates. ¬†By September 11th,¬†new pride in the company and the work is building.
Around 10:30. I take a breather from the terrible news in the next room. I walk into my office and glance down at a box of our next generation of branded material – a view of two towers shot from the ground looking up at to the sky and three dark beautiful and now menacing birds flying high between two towers.”We make it fly” and those once beautiful and compelling images are now something very sinister. All of our current internal communication plans are put on hold indefinitely and the visual image – now ready to go – scrapped forever. Context is everything.
Mid-afternoon. Sitting alone with my boss, in the now unfortunately named ‘war’ room, watching bombs fall in Iraq. ¬†We think we may be seeing a retaliatory attack. “Is this the beginning of a third World War?” ¬†We don’t know. ¬†No one does. And, we knew we would have to keep focused if we are going to help the Bombardier team get through this terrible time.
The next day.¬†We find out that:
- miraculously [since some employees were in the towers at the time] all of our employees and thier families were safe [including the CEOs]
- many of our¬†employees had been in the air, or away from their home bases, and were directly affected by delays caused by the US decision to stop all flights. Over the next few days they would find their way home
- many of our US employees were members of the US National Guard and would be off work for the foreseeable future. More challenges for our US operations.¬†There’s an incredible outpouring of support from our Canadian and Irish operations for our American colleagues.
And, as the day unfolded, we knew that our business and the whole industry is facing the most critical and challenging time in its 100 year history. When, people don’t want to fly carriers and business aircraft owners don’t want to buy planes.
Bombardier survived these challenging times and is still one of the largest aeroplane manufacturers in the world.
Today, when I look back, I’m proud of how we as a team did our jobs¬†during those dark days. ¬†And, as a professional communicator I realize now that we learned some important lessons:
- Strategy matters. We had a clarity of structure and roles built up over a year of working together. The communications leadership team – media relations, employee communications, marketing communications, and public affairs – had built and operationalized a robust integrated communications strategy. When in doubt or danger we could go back to our strategy. We were very clear about what we were trying to accomplish and who, what and how things needed to happen no matter what the crisis.
- Relationships matter. The¬†strong networks we’d built across the system – in¬†operations,¬†engineering, business strategy and hr – and the¬†relationships with communications teams in the plants and offices around the world and made it easy for us to get information and share what we knew and didn’t know and what we were doing about it. These same relationships gave us a critical ¬†real-time pulse on what was happening far from HQ and how and where we could best support the operations.
- Having the right channels and tools matter. The time we’d spent over the previous year developing the executive and management channel helped a lot. The leadership team knew they had communications responsibility and we knew how to reach and support them. It still wasn’t perfect, but it worked incredibly well given what we were facing. And, the new tools and tactics we’d been working on with the global communications team gave us a way to reach any internal stakeholder we needed to reach and get their reactions. Fast.
- Access to executive leadership matters. Direct access and proximity to the executive for decisions was essential for us to do what we needed to do.