Criticized for speaking barely above a whisper concerning the tragic March 22 incident at the airport or slammed for attempting to shift the blame, the Birmingham Airport Authority finds itself in a classic tug-of-war between protecting its public image and safeguarding its legal culpability, a mass communications expert said.
Since a wall-sized flight display board at the newly renovated Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport toppled, killing 10-year-old Kansan Luke Bresette and injuring two brothers and his mother, airport authority board members have been in and out of closed meetings, dodging detailed questions about how the display could be left unsecured and who is responsible.
The way information was handled after the event has drawn criticism from the general public, local columnists and from Mayor William Bell, who chided the authority for its lack of details about the accident.
But the authority’s lack of candidness may not be an issue of information avoidance, said Bernie Ankney, Samford University chair of journalism and mass communication.
Ankney said he didn’t know the particulars about the incident nor the authority’s investigation. But as a former journalist and public relations officer, he offered his insight into the struggle organizations face when they’re forced to manage negative incidents that come to the public’s attention.
“As an organization, whether it’s Samford or the Red Cross, you have to be deliberate and thoughtful in that, when you release information, you get the information right,” he said. “So while it may seem that they’re stalling, sometimes it’s being extra careful.”
Ankney acknowledged, however, that a lack of openness could mean that an organization hasn’t adequately prepared for a crisis.
“It’s often hard to determine. There are some organizations that have crisis communication plans and are ready to implement them and have practiced and have gone through drills, and regardless what happens they’re ready to be out there and ready to handle it from a public relations standpoint,” he said. “Other times, you have organizations that are unprepared, and that could be one explanation here.”
Ankney said an organization may want to be more forthcoming but is constrained by its legal team. “When I work in PR, the most frustrating part of my job is when I had to deal with the attorneys because the attorneys say, ‘Don’t say anything because we’re going to be sued.’ So there’s always some tension between legal and PR because attorneys are trying to project the organization from a legal standpoint while the PR person is trying to be ethical and trying to be open and trying to get the information out there.”
Ultimately, the authority will have to continue feeding information to the public if it wants to restore its reputation.
“I hope they’re making every reasonable effort to be open and to share information as it becomes available,” Ankney said.
Meanwhile, after the airport authority held its third closed-door session last week since the incident, officials released more, but shifted blame elsewhere.
After the April 4 executive session, which lasted more than two hours, Authority President and CEO Al Denson said he learned “that certain contractors and others on the construction team had serious concerns about the safety of these [flight display boards] and the risks they presented before the accident.”
Denson said the authority doesn’t have a full understanding of what was done to address these concerns. “I have inquired as to whether anyone associated with the Birmingham Airport Authority had knowledge about these safety issues,” he said, reading from a statement and flanked by fellow board members. “Based upon the information that I have to date, no one affiliated with the Authority was aware of these concerns.”
All flight display monitors have been removed until a permanent solution can be put into place, Denson said.
The authority’s president said that contractor Brasfield & Gorrie-BLOC Global Joint Venture, KPS Group, Fish Construction and Monumental Contracting Service “should address these matters directly and promptly.”
Brasfield & Gorrie issued a statement early saying it would be inappropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation.