Don’t sully your good name by creating a battle you cannot win

You put your head above this parapet, you’re going to create a story that doesn’t currently exist, writes Terry Prone.
Don’t sully your good name by creating a battle you cannot win

YOU remember the photographs. If you saw them, you could never forget them. Most of them were head-on, cockpit-first shots, showing an enormous plane sitting in the river Hudson, its two great wings covered in passengers. Also in the picture are boats settling to rescue the passengers. Those on the wing closest to the boats are lined up, facing the vessels, apparently as orderly and unbothered as if they were queueing for a cup of coffee.

The captions, when the picture went around the world following the 15th of January, 2009 drama, talked of the Miracle on the Hudson, and the world quickly came to know the name of the miracle worker, pilot Captain Chesley Sullenberger III, and his nickname, Sully. What a guy, went the reaction. One minute, he’s lifting his US Airways Airbus A320 in a normal takeoff out of La Guardia airport, and the next, the two great jet engines have ingested half a flock of geese each and flamed out, leaving Sullenberger without power.

Because he was so experienced a pilot and safety trainer, Sullenberger stayed clinically calm, made his choices, notified air traffic control and ditched the plane in the river, from where all on board were successfully disembarked by boat. Who’s our hero? Sully’s our hero.

Of course, the aviation authorities were always going to have to investigate the crash to find out if all was as it seemed. Questions had to be answered, including the central one: Could the pilot have turned the aircraft around and brought it back to the airport, rather than dropping it into the Hudson? The flight simulators suggested that it was possible. Several pilots using the simulator did it. But once the investigators measured the length of time taken for any pilot to react to total loss of power, consider the possibilities open, and take action on what was perceived to be the best option, they were less enthusiastic about what the simulators suggested. In fact, they decided, a 70 ton glider would not have cleared New York’s skyscrapers. In other words, Sullenberger had made all the right decisions for Flight 1549.

It made a great newspaper story. Act of God happens. Pilot makes right decision and has the skill to make a perfect landing, because he’s been forty years throwing planes through the air and has accrued a few skills along the way. Passengers survive. Plane gets a bit damp.

You might think it would also make a great movie. Clint Eastwood certainly did. Reading Sullenberger’s book, he optioned it and set out to make the film, starring Tom Hanks as the heroic pilot. But a film needs more than a few minutes of spectacular flying and an obvious hero. It needs an arc of tension and a villain or two, and Eastwood worked out that the arc of tension could happen after the plane hit the water. The film, accordingly, majors on the possibility that Sullenberger’s reputation will go straight down the Hudson at the hands of air crash investigators determined to prove that he is anything but a hero. They’re going to use every technological gizmo at their disposal to prove that he could have brought the plane back to La Guardia safely and short circuited the whole river-dousing scene. So Chesley Sullenberger III and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles, played by Aaron Eckhart, are fighting for their careers and — in the case of the former — legacy.

So far, so satisfactorily dramatic, in film terms. And, according to the captain of the plane, who has retired after 40 years flying passenger planes, pretty accurate in its portrayal of how he and Jeff felt at the time. While investigation of any major aviation incident is inevitable, Sully maintains that any pilot who is the focus of such investigation finds the process hugely stressful, not least because it is, he says, “inherently adversarial, with professional reputations absolutely in the balance”. The process, in other words, is what made the pilots feel threatened. But a process does not create tension in the audience watching a film, and so the director — Eastwood — gave the investigators themselves an edge just slightly this side of the Stasi. Understandably, he also changed the names of the investigators, giving them fictional monikers. None of which has lessened the outrage of Robert Benson, who led the National Transportation Safety Board interrogation of the Miracle on the Hudson. Robert is good and sore about how he and his colleagues have been portrayed in the film. His soreness may be exacerbated by the fact that it has all the advance markings of a blockbuster success and therefore millions of viewers may end up hating him.

“We weren’t out to hose the crew,” Robert Benzon protests. “There were no rubber hoses being brought out, no bright lights. Sully is worried about his reputation, but this movie isn’t helping mine.”

This is where a good communications advisor should have sat Robert down and told him to get a small bit of a grip.

“Robert, do yourself a favour,” a good communications advisor would have said. “Shut up. Right now, a bunch of actors appear in a movie, playing investigators doing stuff you didn’t actually do. But this isn’t a documentary. Poetic license applies to films. They have not attempted to portray you in a way that identifies you as the over-rigorous investigators. They have not named you. Nobody out there in the queues waiting to get into ‘Sully’ knows you from a hole in the ground, whereas they DO know Sully. And like him a lot. If you continue to be silent, that will continue to be the case. Those who know you know the characters in the film aren’t you. Those who don’t know you can’t do you any harm. You put your head above this parapet, you’re going to create a story that doesn’t currently exist.”

Nobody seems to have offered this reductive advice to Robert, who came out all guns blazing to protect his unthreatened credentials. Nor did he bother to see the film before he let fly. He operated on hearsay. The classic hearsay of “friends” who cannot wait to tell someone how awful a public communication is, and how dangerous and damaging it is for them. In this case, a few pals, having seen the film, wound Robert up to a conviction that he had to get out there and protest.

The end result was predictable. Lots of coverage of his defensive warblings, counter weighted, in the interests of balance, by contradictions from almost everybody involved in making the film, including its producer, who pointed out that the story is told through the experiences of the two pilots, who, at the time, felt under huge pressure, even if Robert intended them no harm at all.

The old PR advice was “Never go to war with someone who buys ink by the barrel”. An update on that advice might be: “Never go to war with the famous and beloved. The payoff will be poor.”

You put your head above this parapet, you’re going to create a story that doesn’t currently exist

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