De impact van Eyjafjallajökull op Eurocontrol: een interview met Aurélie Valtat.

Zaterdag 20 maart is een datum die veel mensen niet licht zullen vergeten. De vulkaan in de IJslandse gletsjer Eyjafjallajökull barstte uit en legde enkele weken later grote delen van het vliegverkeer in Europa lam. De as kan ertoe leiden dat vliegtuigmotoren plotseling stilvallen. Miljoenen reizigers werden gegijzeld door deze natuurkracht. Eurocontrol, de Europese luchverkeersleiding, werd overspoeld met vragen tijdens deze crisis. Aurélie ValtatDe sympathieke Aurélie Valtat, werkzaam bij het Corporate Communicatins team, stond ons een interview toe en blikt hier terug op de grootste luchtvaartcrisis ooit.

Het interview werd in het Engels afgenomen. We veronderstellen dat onze lezers het Engels genoeg machtig zijn 😉 If not, just yell :p

Who is and what does Eurocontrol do exactly?
Eurocontrol is an international organisation whose objective is to make aviation in Europe safe, sustainable and efficient. We do this by putting our technical and operational expertise, gained over more than 50 years, at the service of our 38 Member States, the European Union and our partners in the air transport industry.
How many people work in the communication team of Eurocontrol?
The Corporate Communications team at Eurocontrol is composed of around 25 professionals, eight of them being involved in external communications.
What is your role at Eurocontrol?
At Eurocontrol I’m in charge of driving and implementing the organization’s online communication strategy. I’m managing our public website, our social media accounts, our presence on third party websites, and making sure any editorial contribution is of the highest quality standards. With more than 300 people currently contributing to our site, this is a real challenge! I also regularly give lectures and conferences on web strategy, writing and usability.
And where do you come from professionally?
Before Eurocontrol I was leading the communication efforts of a European lobbying association called PostEurop, and before that I worked in communications in the field of culture and education, at Alliance Française first and then at UNESCO.
Why do you like to work at Eurocontrol?
I really enjoy working there because it’s an international environment with people passionate about their work. I didn’t know aviation before so communicating in this area is both a challenge and quite exciting. And I have lots of freedom in my work to try out new communication concepts and make sure Eurocontrol doesn’t lag behind in terms of web strategy.
The eruption of the Icelandic volcano was a disaster never seen before. UK closed the first airports. Was there more time for European airports?
I like your question because it infers that the UK isn’t part of Europe :) On 15 April the UK was indeed the first country to close its airspace, but it was shortly followed on the same day by Denmark, Ireland, Netherlands, Belgium, southern Sweden, and some parts of France. In total some 33 European countries had to close their airspace at some point during the crisis.
When were you informed about a problem? Did you know immediately the impact would be huge?
We first got the information on 15 April in the morning from our operational centre in Brussels. Shortly after that the phones started ringing, with journalists curious to know about the latest situation. We had no idea at that moment that the airspace closures would be so important and that the volcano would disrupt air traffic in Europe for such a long period of time.
I understood there were many parties involved in the crisis management. How did the communication between the different parties go?
Eurocontrol keeps close contacts with all its partners, even when there is no crisis. Our operational centre in charge of all air traffic flows in Europe (Central Flow Management Unit or CFMU) was constantly in contact with airlines, airports and State authorities, to monitor the situation and keep track of airspace closures.  EUROCONTROL also worked closely with the European Commission and the Member States during the weekend of 17-18 April to reach a solution to better manage the crisis. This was achieved the next Monday when all EU Member States gathered in an extraordinary teleconference – obviously, as they couldn’t fly into Brussels :-).
Who was responsible for answering questions from the media? Were all questions from the media being discussed with the different parties involved?
There were three press officers taking phone calls from the media at Eurocontrol during the crisis. I was also authorised to answer journalist queries on Twitter. We regularly met to make sure we shared the latest information with the press and to coordinate our responses. We also worked closely with the communications staff in our partner organizations, and in particular the European Commission, to ensure that we were sharing the information that was coming from different sources.
Who managed the communication stream to the general public?
We used three channels to communicate with the general public directly: our public website, our Twitter account and our Facebook page. All these three were managed by me and during the crisis; I was alone to update them as my assistant was stuck in Barcelona due to the ash cloud. So it was all down to one person, I’m afraid.
Who did control the messages? How were the messages controlled?
Every day the CFMU updated its operational information portal called the NOP Portal with the latest information. The press office would issue at least two press updates on the air traffic situation daily. So I based my responses on the above + on any press conferences or interviews I attended. I didn’t need approval for every message I put up on social networks as this would not be in the spirit of social networks, and we just didn’t have time. I was lucky enough for my bosses to trust my sound judgement.
Did you work with external agencies or advisors?
We did it all by ourselves. And I’m quite proud of what we did, actually!
How would you describe the role of the media in this matter? Did the media help in bringing a correct story?
In Corporate Communications, we were surprised about the media’s reactions.  Even though the number of calls and emails that we got meant that we weren’t always able to answer immediately, the journalists were really positive about the information that we provided. They also in general reported the story in a very factual way. The only thing which wasn’t clear for many journalists and which we tried to correct during the crisis was that Eurocontrol does not close airspace, it is States which close airspace, we just communicated about airspace closures/openings.
How did you use social media during this crisis? Did you monitor it?
As said before, we relied mostly on our existing Twitter and Facebook accounts, with a little help of Linkedin and Youtube for specific audiences or content. Twitter was used for almost real-time information, for live tweeting of press conferences and interviews of Eurocontrol experts, and for answering people’s questions. At some point I had around a question every two minutes during the weekend! We went from around 300 followers to over 7,000 in 4 days, and we are now at over 10,000.
We used Facebook as a complement to Twitter, but the questions were more from aviation professionals and aviation “geeks”. We doubled our number of fans during that week, moving from 2,000 to 4,000 fans.
For monitoring we used a combination of elements, including Google Alerts and Hootsuite. This was sufficient to monitor our online presence and reputation during the crisis and we are still using those today.
What are the learnings of this crisis for Eurocontrol?
There are four main lessons we’ve learned:

  1. You need to incorporate social media into your crisis communications plan, which was not the case.
  2. You need to treat your social media person like a member of the press office, especially in times of crisis.
  3. You need to be interacting more on Twitter and Facebook, not just pushing news and waiting for people to retweet or share them.
  4. It doesn’t hurt to be human and to be fun on social media, because it all boils down to human interactions.
Last but not least, what do you do in calm periods?
During quiet periods I still manage the same communication channels, but I can think about the future and how to improve our online communication. And I can also get back to my family sometime before the sun sets :)
Thank you so much for this interview!

Wie meer wil weten over de crisis en hoe Eurocontrol op deze crisis  reageerde, hier is een geweldige prezi te bekijken.

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Tim De Coninck is a marketing pro for hire. He's passionate about people, ideas and social media. And cheese... Currently working as A cup of T for Across Technology

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