7 things PR pros can learn from airplane pilots

You might think your crisis scenarios are dire, but men and women behind the controls of an aircraft know what it means to prepare for the worst.


PR pros can learn a thing or two from a pilot.

We spent time over the past week flying to and from vacation in what we’ve now dubbed the “Quaran-Plane”—our Cirrus SR22 private aircraft—which gives us the good fortune to be able to get away in a safe, socially distanced manner.

As my pilot husband prepared for our trip, monitored the weather on our route, did his pre-flight checks and navigated the flight itself, I recognized many applicable lessons about the importance of crisis preparedness and management.

Here are seven things pilots know that PR pros should take into consideration:

1. Do the prep – EVERY time.

Pilots have big responsibilities, as do communications leaders in a crisis. And although you may feel like you have things well in hand, the act of preparation is essential.

It all starts with having a comprehensive and up-to-date crisis plan. Pilots must keep their license “current” through regular proficiency exercises; the same goes for crisis training.  Test your plan frequently through tabletop drills and thorough reviews. Have you run through your pre-flight (pre-crisis) checklist lately?

2. Plan for bad weather ahead.

The measure of great preparedness, in aviation or in crisis, starts with identifying the highest likelihood and greatest impact risk scenarios—and then doing all you can to avoid them.

Rely on the tools that will help you see what’s around the corner. Having good radar allows you to forecast the weather you want to fly around. But storms do come up, and a good plan will assure you have the tools needed to travel safely through them, to mitigate risk and to effectively manage crises.

3. Clear communication matters.

Aviation has its own language. “Atlanta Center: Cirrus 648 Charlie Bravo, level 8,000” means our plane is on the Atlanta Center frequency, and our plane with tail number 648CB is cruising at 8,000 feet.

As we fly, we may be handed off to more than 10 different centers, which requires clear communication. Likewise, the words you choose in crisis must be selected help audiences understand, so they don’t end up wondering, “Whiskey Tango Hotel?” You need to be efficient and direct in what you say to stakeholders and may have to repeat your message numerous times for clarity.

4. There may be bumps along the way.

Even the best-prepared flight routes encounter poor weather or other complications. Crises are no different.

During a flight, you may find yourself in a small storm, diverted due to an unforeseen issue or taken completely off-course. As a communicator, your role is to pilot your client or team safely through a crisis response by managing their expectations and navigating these events with thoughtful, strategic solutions.

Knowing what’s coming is not always possible, and the ability to make decisions “on-the-fly” often is necessary.

5. Remain calm.

Pilots cannot freak out, as a strong, steady hand on the flight controls is critical. Successful crisis counselors must be the same.

Leaders in a crisis share these attributes: strength, integrity, foresight, empathy and resilience. In crises, the C-suite, media, employees, customers and other stakeholders will be looking to you for swift decision-making and real-time information. A well-planned response delivered in a calm, thoughtful manner builds trust and confidence and helps assure you can get to the other side.

6. Build in contingencies.

While in flight, things can and do go wrong. Radios stop working. Gauges get wacky. Parts break. The same is true in crisis.

In a Cirrus, the ultimate contingency is to “Pull the red handle.Cirrus planes are equipped with a full-plane parachute that in an emergency will “float” the plane safely to the ground. While most planes will go a lifetime without deploying the parachute, crisis leaders should anticipate what lies ahead and where things could go awry. The best plans create alternate scenarios and incorporate the potential need to shift a strategy based on uncertainties and unknowns.

7. Trust your team.

It’s important for communicators to include others in the preparation process. A crisis is not the time for a solo flight.

Identify co-pilots and assure they understand their crisis roles. Rely on those working in air traffic control—or on your crisis management team—to give the guidance you need and take it. Recognize that when you’re in the middle of the crisis, others must have assigned roles and must be empowered and trusted to successfully do their jobs.

A crisis is not a time for micro-managing. It’s a time for confident, decisive leadership.

Whether in the sky or on the ground, detailed preparation for the possibility of crisis is key. Want to learn more about general aviation? Check out AOPA.org. Or to follow our travels? Log onto FlightAware and enter our tail number – N648CB.

Hinda Mitchell is the president and founder of Inspire PR Group. You can contact her at Hinda@InspirePRGroup.com.


3 Responses to “7 things PR pros can learn from airplane pilots”

    Gina Yager says:

    I love this Hinda! My company handles PR for the Cirrus Platinum partner, All In Aviation in Las Vegas. So, as a PR pro who is around SR22s and pilots all the time, I totally get this. Thanks for sharing – and I’m so jealous you get to spend your free time traveling via general aviation!

    Ronald N. Levy says:

    An eighth thing to learn and perhaps the most important: DON’T RUN OUT OF GAS!

    One can get to expect that budget money will always be there but the reality is that adequate budget money may most likely be there if you focus on (a) WHO are the main people who decide how much, and (b) WHAT do they really want PR to do.

    The “who” is not so obvious as it may at first seem. Is $50,000 budgeted for a project because (a) that’s clearly the right amount, (b) that’s how much it was last time, or (c) because the budget approver has a social relationship with someone or hopes to have one? The “who” may influence the ”how” of setting budgets.

    There are many other possibilities but it could be error to figure that “(a)” is always the answer.

    The “what” may be especially difficult to judge correctly. Like with D&I it’s fashionable and safe to call for more, almost no one may ever say we need less, yet an executive whose career depends on PR results may strongly prefer that you hire the best qualified candidate rather than the candidate who may be best for D&I.

    When they sing “God Bless America,” that may not be a time when many people wonder whether there really is a God, and when a boss says “here’s what I think,” you can’t safely ask “is that what you REALLY think?” But even a boss isn’t always aware of what leads to decisions so try to base decisions not on how things seem but how they are.

    It may be crucial to job results and career advancement to benefit from the eighth lesson we learn from pilots: pay attention to having plenty of gas!

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