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Lead Balloon Ep. 20 - Plane Crash in Colombia: American Airlines Flight 965, with Jennifer R. Hudson



Three weeks into her role as an American Airlines spokeswoman, Jennifer Hudson is called to Colombia following an air disaster that claimed 159 lives.


Three weeks after accepting a new role as an American Airlines spokeswoman in 1995, Jennifer R. Hudson was paged out of bed in the middle of the night.


The worst had happened.

Flight 965 had disappeared in the mountains of Colombia, and Jennifer needed to report to the scene of the crash to coordinate the company's public relations response. Unnerved and uncertain, she had to push aside her doubts and power through what would become one of the most harrowing experiences of her career.


Jennifer would go on to serve as a Vice President of Communications for British Airways, a PR Manager at the Sabre Group, and eventually the head of her own independent agency, Think Beyond PR.


But the experience of immersing herself in a tragedy that cost 159 lives sticks with her to this day, forging a set of PR instincts and resolve that have served her well. And for those of us who think we're having a hard day in the PR trenches, her tale is an important lesson in coping through pressure, humility and determination.


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You can learn more about the crash of Flight 965 in this episode of Mayday, from which we sampled some expert interviews, survivor recollections and black box reenactments to help build context for Jennifer's story.



Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

So you may notice that, just for this month's episode, I've dropped the flaming, crashing blimp imagery from the Lead Balloon logo. Well, when the subject of this month's episode is an honest-to-goodness aviation tragedy that cost 159 lives, seems like that cheeky little bit of aeronautical dark humor is in poor taste.


Dusty Weis:

On December 20th, 1995, American Airlines flight 965 from Miami crashed into the side of a mountain just minutes before it was expected to touch down in Cali, Colombia. It would be months before investigators pieced together the unlikely series of seemingly innocuous mistakes that led to the crash, but for Jennifer R. Hudson, who had all of three weeks on the job as American's corporate communications rep, the tragedy touched off one of the most intense, emotional and difficult experiences of her decades-long career.


Jennifer Hudson:

It was the middle of the night. The telephone rang and I was told that something had happened with a plane, we weren't sure what it was, and that I needed to pack a bag, bring my passport, and get to the office as soon as possible.


Dusty Weis:

As the Spanish-speaking spokesperson for the team, it fell to Jennifer to fly to Colombia in the dead of night and coordinate the company's PR response to the tragedy. It's an experience that reshaped her as a professional and lives with her to this day.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis from Podcamp Media. This is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR, marketing and branding nightmares and the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them.


Dusty Weis:

Thanks for tuning in. We talk about public relations disasters on this show and we use that term loosely because even when a PR faux pas costs a company millions of dollars, at least everyone gets to go home at the end of the day. But that's why I think Jennifer Hudson's story is so compelling; the lessons, so important. Because there are people who work in corners of public relations where the stakes are actually life or death and the way that they're trained on the job, the methods that they use and the way that they cope with the pressure are all valuable lessons for the rest of us.


Dusty Weis:

I do this show on a monthly basis, so if these are the kind of stories you find valuable, I hope that you'll subscribe on your favorite app and if you give me a five star review, I'll even read it on the air, like vicareyusler, who says, "I love this podcast. If you're in communications, marketing, or PR role, you will relate so hard. We all have 'those' stories, and Lead Balloon celebrates them." Thanks, vicareyus. That's not only exactly what we're going for here, but your review helped Apple Podcasts' algorithm display this show to even more communications professionals like you.


Dusty Weis:

Before I met Jennifer R. Hudson, I didn't really know anything about the crash of American flight 965, but having researched it an awful lot to prep for this episode, it's one of the more harrowing, confounding air disasters that I have ever heard of, in large part because there's no critical malfunction. There's no major mistake that you can blame. It's infuriating, almost. Instead, the Boeing 757 went down because of an unlikely series of small mistakes and X factors, any one of which would have been completely harmless on its own, but in perfect sequence under exactly all the wrong conditions, flight 965 wound up about 10 miles off course on a moonless night flying directly into the side of a mountain that the pilots didn't know was there until the last few seconds. 159 people perished in that crash on December 20th, 1995. Four people and one dog survived, and Jennifer Hudson was about to have an experience that would shape her both professionally and personally.


Jennifer Hudson:

Even just hearing you define that, I have a physical reaction to it. I'm feeling something in my gut, in my stomach, like queasiness, just hearing you read that.


Dusty Weis:

Jennifer Hudson, you are a former vice president of communications for British Airways; former PR manager at the Sabre Group, the aviation booking and technology company; and a former corporate communications rep for American Airlines. After having worked in the aviation sphere for more than a decade, you branched out as a comms consultant, which you've been doing in south Florida since about 2004. Of course, the story that we're going to be exploring here is from early in your career, from your time at American Airlines, so Jennifer Hudson, thanks for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Jennifer Hudson:

Hi, Dusty. Thank you for having me. Very happy to be here.


Dusty Weis:

Jennifer, I think it's really interesting that you took sort of a non-traditional route into the strategic communications field dating back to your time at American. How did you come to work at American Airlines, and how did you wind up transitioning into corporate communications there?


Jennifer Hudson:

That's a really interesting story. So I'd graduated college and was trying to make the decision about whether or not I wanted to go to grad school or whether I should get a job. I was turning 21. I was going to migrate off my mother's insurance and she was like, "You've got to do something." And so I looked for work. I spoke Spanish because my undergraduate degree had been in Spanish. I had lived in Spain. I was trying to decide also, should I just go and live in Spain and teach English for a few years? This was the early '90s though, and jobs were plentiful. It was a good time to be looking for work.


Jennifer Hudson:

American was hiring only Spanish-speaking reservations agents. I'll tell you, Dusty, I didn't even type fast enough to get the job, so I actually taught myself to type. Did the interview, did the type test and made it through, and I started in American's Spanish reservations department. What I didn't realize is how that would change the whole trajectory of my professional career. So I got into Spanish reservations. Eventually got recognized by these amazing, amazing women leaders at American who put me on a management track. I ended up managing, supervising the department that I started in.


Jennifer Hudson:

But the entire time that I was in the reservations department, I kept my hand in communications because I had a minor in communications. Kept my hand in communications. I had produced videos on the Spanish reservations department. I was a part of reorganization teams, the communications teams for those. I wrote the newsletter. And so I'd always kept my hand in communications and had actually finally made the decision to leave American after three and a half, four years, to go to grad school because I knew I wanted to study public relations and work in that field.


Jennifer Hudson:

An opportunity opened up in American's corp comm department, and I got the job. This was at a time when the field of public relations was dominated by people who'd had prior media experience; you know, reporters, people who'd worked in the field. Those were the people who dominated in the PR field at the time, but I was hired to not only serve as the Spanish-speaking spokesperson for American... And the Spanish helps, so I tell everybody, "Study another language!" The Spanish helped. I was also going to manage PR for Sabre, the travel technology arm that we were about to spin off. And it ended up just being this wonderful happenstance for my career that I managed to do all of this within the same company.


Dusty Weis:

Just a piece of good luck there, really, being able to make the transition that you did, but we also have a term in the PR and marketing field, and it's "baptism by fire." I imagine that making that transition when you did and moving over into that field kind of felt a little bit like that. I mean, what sort of training did they give you at a company like American Airlines to be a spokesperson for an aviation company? Are air disasters something that you're specifically trained to handle?


Jennifer Hudson:

My training for incidents happened in reservations, actually. I was also a part of what we call the IRG group, the initial response group, and I volunteered to be a part of that group. This was at the time when airlines contacted families after an incident happened and the reservations agents, the IRG group, was responsible for that. So we would contact the families when we cleared the manifests and whatever the situation was, we knew what was happening. We were responsible for reaching out to families, so I had already had that type of training.


Jennifer Hudson:

By the time I got into corporate communications, I think I had probably worked two or three incidents with planes already, one of which was a fatal crash by an American Eagle plane, and I was a part of the initial response group when that happened. So I was going into corporate communications already with the knowledge of the airline industry, already with that kind of training to deal with incidents that happened at the airplane. Deaths on board, I mean, all of that sort of thing impacted reservations in some way.


Dusty Weis:

But outside of that, there was no boot camp where they sent you to learn how to deal with a media scrum or something like that? It was...


Jennifer Hudson:

No, there wasn't. I had taken communications courses in school but the training that I got at American in corp comm was really just... The seasoned professionals at American Airlines were the ones who taught me everything that I know. Working with them how to deal with the media, what to say, what not to say... And companies like American Airlines always have crisis communications plans. Crisis communications plans become the bible when you are involved in any sort of incident, and so I honestly, if I did receive some kind of structured training, my memory's a little blurry about it, but I know that the crisis communications plan was something that I knew. I had the plan with me always.


Jennifer Hudson:

We would do what we called, we had to serve on duty on the weekends and that was back in the time when you had pagers. You'd take this humongous bag with you that had your crisis plan, all of the contacts. There was no Google file or electronic file, so all that stuff was paper. You would lug that home with you when you were on duty, and when you were the duty officer, you handled nonstop, round-the-clock phone calls from reporters. You were the person who handled that and you had your contacts within the company that you dealt with.


Documentary Announcer:

On December the 20th, 1995, American Airlines flight 965 is preparing to depart Miami International Airport. Its destination is Cali, Colombia. Flight 965 is scheduled to leave at 4:40 p.m. but has already been delayed for 30 minutes at the gate to allow for connecting passengers.


Dusty Weis:

The 20 year old Canadian TV series Mayday pulled together a pretty decent examination and reenactment of flight 965's final hours. I'll put the YouTube link in the episode description if you want to check that out. The flight was further delayed by heavy holiday traffic leaving MIA and the NTSB determined that this left pilots behind schedule and in a hurry to catch up.


Documentary Announcer:

Finally, two hours late, flight 965 is cleared for takeoff.


Capt. Tafuri:

American nine six five.


Air Traffic Control (MIA):

American nine six five, runway two seven right. Fly the runway heading. Cleared for takeoff.


Capt. Tafuri:

Merry Christmas. Cleared for takeoff, two seven right, American nine six five. You do a great job. Good night.


Documentary Announcer:

Captain Nicholas Tafuri, age 57, is in charge of flight 965. He's one of American Airlines' premier pilots, with more than 13,000 hours of flying experience, over 2,000 of them in the 757. At the controls is first officer Donnie R. Williams, age 39. Although he's been flying for American for nine years, flight 965 is his first trip to Cali.


Dusty Weis:

A few hours later, flight 965 was beginning its final descent to Aragón International Airport in Cali. Coming from the north, planes on their final approach to Cali have to descend between two rugged mountain ranges with peaks more than two and a half miles above the valley floor. Keeping them on course? A series of radio beacons tracked by the airplane's flight management system. With a set of these waypoints programmed into this computer system, a commercial airliner can basically fly itself to within a few miles of Cali. Their progress is, of course, monitored and directed by air traffic control at Aragón.


Dusty Weis:

But Colombian air traffic controllers in 1995 were flying blind, so to speak. An important radar installation had been blown up several years prior by the insurgent group FARC and so they had no way to track the exact location of incoming flights. Instead, air traffic control counted on pilots to self-report their location based on distance to the airport and those radio beacons, and then gave them directions based on the location that they self-reported.


Dusty Weis:

It was clearly less than ideal, but also the kind of thing that pilots train for, and on the night of December 20th, 1995, flight 965 had four steps left on its flight plan: cross waypoint TULUA, cross waypoint ROZO, come around in a long turn, and land from the south in Cali. The cockpit transcript shows that Captain Tafuri had no concerns when he radioed in his location.


Capt. Tafuri:

The DME is six three.


Air Traffic Control (CLO):

Roger. American nine six five is cleared to Cali. Descend and maintain one five thousand feet. Altimeter, three zero zero two. Report at TULUA.


Capt. Tafuri:

Okay, understood. Cleared direct to Cali VOR, report TULUA.


Air Traffic Control (CLO):

Affirmative.


Documentary Announcer:

It's a misunderstanding. Captain Tafuri thinks he's being told to fly direct to Cali and forget all about TULUA, but the controller needs him to report when he passes TULUA so that he knows where the plane is. Tafuri punches direct to Cali in his computer. Since the plane no longer has to pass over them, all the waypoints between his present position and Cali will now be erased, including TULUA, the one he's now approaching.


Dusty Weis:

A few moments later, air traffic control gets back on the radio. The winds have calmed in Cali, and so the pilots have the option of landing from the north on runway 19 rather than circling around and coming in from the south. Already way behind schedule, they jump at the opportunity to make up even five minutes, but they're going to have to get their bearings and descend much more quickly so they don't overshoot the runway.


Documentary Announcer:

Williams deploys the speed brakes. The brakes are flaps on the top of the wings. When they're raised, they reduce lift and increase the plane's rate of descent. Events begin to unravel very quickly in the cockpit. The pilots have to locate the new charts for the approach to one nine, enter the new route into the computer, and still fly the plane.


Capt. Tafuri:

And TULUA one ROZO...


Dusty Weis:

But as they're fumbling with the charts, air traffic control is still asking them to report when they cross the next waypoint. Having deleted all the waypoints out of the pre-programmed path, Captain Tafuri quickly tries to punch up waypoint ROZO and hits Execute, but it's the wrong waypoint by hundreds of miles.


Dusty Weis:

The plane turns hard to the east and, unbeknownst to the pilots as they struggle to navigate in the dark, crosses over to the other side of one of those two and a half mile high mountain ridges. For another minute, the autopilot takes them further and further off course. The plane is moving at 215 miles per hour and descending at 1300 feet per minute. Unable to make heads or tails out of the waypoint beacons, the pilots decide to head straight for the airport, unaware that there's now a wall of mountains between them and Cali.


Capt. Tafuri:

(beep) Pull up, baby!


Ground Proximity Warning Sensor:

Terrain.


Documentary Announcer:

The plane's ground proximity warning system is telling them they're about to crash.


Ground Proximity Warning Sensor:

Terrain.


Dusty Weis:

Realizing their mortal danger, the recovered black box shows that Captain Tafuri maxed out the throttle and pulled up as hard as he could and the NTSB investigation found that he could have made it too, except for that final, fatal mistake: they forgot to disengage the speed brakes.


Capt. Tafuri:

Pull up, baby! More, more! Up, up, up!


Dusty Weis:

That fateful decision? The last in an unlikely perfect storm of errors and coincidences lost the plane just enough altitude that it clipped its tail on the treetops of the mountain ridge and crashed.


Jennifer Hudson:

I'd been on the job for three weeks, as you said.


Dusty Weis:

In Dallas, it was a typical Wednesday night for American Airlines' spokeswoman Jennifer Hudson.


Jennifer Hudson:

I was at home, asleep, because it was the middle of the night. The telephone rang and I was told that something had happened with a plane, we weren't sure what it was, and that I needed to pack a bag. I assume conversations had already been had that I was a Spanish speaker in the department. I needed to pack a bag, bring my passport, and get to the office as soon as possible.


Jennifer Hudson:

Headed into the office with a mix of both this sort of shock and sadness and wonder because I'd been in this department for such a short time and I had seen what happens on the reservations side and the frenzy and the quick coordination that happens on reservations, but I had not seen it in corporate communications. I remember walking into the department and a lot of the other departments were dark but the lights were on in our area and I walk in and there's already tons of movement.


Jennifer Hudson:

I head to the office of Al Becker, who had been with American and who I will just be forever grateful to. Al really calmed my spirit and told me exactly what I needed to do when we made the decision that I was the one who would head to Cali, Colombia. He brought me into his office and I can remember him sitting back and telling me, "Okay, Jen. This is what you're going to do. Then, you're going to do this." I needed to set up the go-room for us in Cali. That room would be populated with fax machines, that's what we used back then, with fax machines and a computer for me to constantly churn out and receive information from corporate office that I would then need to provide to our country manager or to the media there.


Jennifer Hudson:

He was a man who had been around the curve a few times and had some sense of what I was going to experience, although I don't think anyone really understood what I could experience unless you'd actually been there and seen it.


Dusty Weis:

Unaware of flight 965's fate and unsure what to expect as an on-site company spokeswoman, Jennifer Hudson was headed to Colombia. Her job? Try and provide answers to the families of 159 grieving passengers and crew, and the traveling public worldwide, of the circumstances that had brought down one of the world's safest, most advanced flying machines. It's a process that would ultimately take months and change forever the way that she approaches her work.


Jennifer Hudson:

Hearing black box audio is one of the most difficult things ever. It makes the hairs on your head and all over your body just stand on end.


Dusty Weis:

The rest of her tale and more are coming up in a minute here on Lead Balloon.


Dusty Weis:

This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. Three weeks into her job as a spokeswoman for American Airlines in 1995, Jennifer R. Hudson was paged out of bed in the middle of the night and told to report to the office ready for travel. American flight 965 was missing, presumed lost, in the mountains of Colombia, and as the resident Spanish speaker on the comms team, she was being sent to manage the company's on-site PR response, a job for which she hoped desperately to have some guidance from a senior team member.


Jennifer Hudson:

I do remember another colleague came in with a coat on, because this was December, it was cold in Dallas. He came in with his suitcase and I remember feeling this rush of relief, like "Oh, that guy's going to come with me." I didn't know who that guy was. I was like, "Okay, I'll have someone more senior with me because I've only been here three weeks." But that was not the case. I ended up on an airplane with our go team, the only person from corporate communications.


Jennifer Hudson:

The plane ride down to Colombia was a little harrowing and nerve-wracking because we were on the same type of plane, 757. I remember there was some turbulence on the plane and we were all trying to get some sleep before we headed down. The plane was populated with all of the folks from American Airlines' head office who needed to be there. Our operations person, insurance, all of the whole go-to team was headed down. I remember that the plane sort of shook a little bit and there was a bit of turbulence and we all sort of sat up and people were running their fingers through their hair and just a little sort of "What's going on?"


Dusty Weis:

This was that same night of the crash? This was still in the darkness?


Jennifer Hudson:

Yeah.


Dusty Weis:

Oh my goodness.


Jennifer Hudson:

This is still in the darkness.


Dusty Weis:

So probably very, very early in the morning. Did you get any sleep on that flight?


Jennifer Hudson:

I don't think so because I remember being very exhausted in the hotel afterwards.


Dusty Weis:

What, if anything, was going through your head on that flight?


Jennifer Hudson:

I sat next to our insurance person, who was going down. We had nice conversation for a while and I felt comforted, but I was still sort of wracked with this sense of wonder and "What the heck am I doing?" Three weeks on the job, in your twenties, young, not realizing. I will tell you this as a juxtaposition. Years later, working for British Airways, Colombia was part of my market. I was VP, as you said, of Latin America and Caribbean. When I traveled to Colombia, we remained in the airport and if we went outside the airport, we were in armored cars. Colombia is completely different today, right? But at the time, that was the reality of Colombia.


Jennifer Hudson:

I knew there were narco trafficantes in Colombia, but I didn't realize that the plane had gone down in an area that was populated by narco trafficantes. Ignorance was power at that time. If I had sort of known all of what I was going into, I might have been a lot more freaked out. The fact that there was an incident with the plane was harrowing in and of itself, but I didn't have a full grasp of all of the political and social implications of what was happening at the time.


Dusty Weis:

In Cali, family members of the passengers and crew waited in the airport terminal. Many of them had been waiting since the plane's scheduled arrival the evening prior, desperate for answers. Residents of Buga, a small mountain town at the base of El Diluvio, reported hearing a massive explosion in the late night dark. As rescue crews began ascending the peak at 3:00 a.m., news crews packed the already crowded airport terminal in Cali, joining the throng of people hungry for more information.


Jennifer Hudson:

When I arrived at the airport, I remember walking through wide open glass doors and seeing the head of the country manager for Colombia surrounded by layer after layer after layer of reporters who were pounding him with questions. He had his head bent down. He was very humble. Obviously, it was a horrible situation. We were all in shock. He's trying to answer the questions calmly, and I realized that it was my job to go and rescue him.


Dusty Weis:

To put yourself between him and those reporters.


Jennifer Hudson:

Exactly. And I, again, I owe this to Al because Al told me what I needed to do when I got there. I'm sure that I was expecting a throng, I just don't know that I was expecting that much of a throng around this one individual. It was really sort of sad. It's like this one man is surrounded by layers, it was like layers of an onion of people. It was massive. And so somehow, I forced my way through the crowd, got to the country manager, and I might have said something like, "We'll have a statement for you," whatever, and I pulled him out of that crowd. We got to a room in the airport for privacy.


Jennifer Hudson:

From that point, we ended up at a hotel near the site of the crash and that's where I began to set up my operations room and everything that I would need with the support of some other folks at American. With the country manager's support, I was the go-between between corporate office and what was happening on the ground. I spoke with my boss at the time later, and he said that, "You were our only eyes and ears there." And he also said something that I thought was really wonderful. He said, "You know, we didn't realize until you got there and jumped into action how good you actually were." I was like, "Well, that's really nice. Thank you!"


Jennifer Hudson:

"We didn't realize how good you actually were until you got there and managed it, but you were our eyes and ears. We had no one else." He was spending his time in operations control. There was no one on the ground.


Dusty Weis:

There's something to be said about that, though, because in a situation like that when you're untested, as you were, there's really no way to know until you have your feet on the ground. And from my experience, having been in high intensity situations, although never quite that intense, sometimes you just have to keep your feet under you and just keep moving from one job to the next to the next. You just look at it like a to-do list. You don't look at it like it's reality until you've established some kind of order on it.


Jennifer Hudson:

You just put your head down and do the work. I had work to do. I had to get this room set up. Media around the world wanted answers. That never stops. And I was used to that from the reservations department again, like the phone calls don't stop. You've got to constantly coordinate with other folks. I just put my head down and did the work. Where that comes from, I mean, I guess that comes from the work ethic that your parents instilled in you. I don't know. I had already been managing a team of over a hundred people in the reservations department. I was used to having lots of information coming at me.


Jennifer Hudson:

It's interesting. It could have also been just youthful ignorance. There's always a moment after a crisis where there is a debrief, this kind of moment of reckoning where you have to discuss and talk about, and I know that after that there was some trauma that I experienced, but when you're in it, you're just dealing with it and whatever I was experiencing was nothing compared to those parents who were waiting for their kids to come home for the holidays, for those families who were waiting for their loved ones. We actually set up places for the families in the hotel where I was staying, so I was seeing families while I was doing my work and coordinating with the country manager.


Jennifer Hudson:

Seeing those families in their anguish, just, you don't think about self, right? I just did what I needed to do, and I knew that I needed to be the person who was gathering information as we got it, helping corporate fashion statements that reflected what we knew because you can't tell what you don't know, and doing that in a way that protects everyone.


Dusty Weis:

People from outside the industry, I think, forget that part of our job in public relations is to help bring information and ultimately bring closure to families that are having the worst day of their lives. And I know that it's easy sometimes to be seen as the bad guy when you're the face for a disaster for something like that, but I think that it's really admirable that you kept yourself going by focusing on serving other people who were in need.


Jennifer Hudson:

Yeah, and I didn't know this at the time because I hadn't gotten through my master's degree program in public relations, but the role of the PR person is really about serving that company and all of its various publics, right? There's a two-way responsibility that we have as public relations professionals to manage the interests ethically of all of the related parties.


Dusty Weis:

Jennifer Hudson didn't know it at the time, but that mission of service was being tested back in American Airlines' corporate headquarters while she was afield in Colombia.


Jennifer Hudson:

We had made an initial statement and we knew that we needed to communicate more. I'm on a plane heading to Colombia and I learn later that my colleagues are doing a back-and-forth with management, where they're trying to convince them of the need to communicate more. Not that we shouldn't say anything at all, right? Management knew we needed to communicate, but as much as we were advising, they didn't want to do and understandably so, because we didn't know anything, so why communicate when we don't know? And, as you know, when you don't communicate the void gets filled with something, so we were trying to convince them that we needed to fill that void.


Dusty Weis:

I think this is probably something that plays out more often than most people realize behind the scenes in situations like this, not just at aviation companies, but any big corporate entity that faces a crisis, very often, management's initial impulse is to just lock down. No information in, no information out. One of the biggest hurdles that I think we face as public relations and crisis communicators is convincing them that that is not a good course of action. It's not good for the company and it's not good for the public. How do you, as a professional in this space, go about making that case?


Jennifer Hudson:

It is so important for public relations professionals to be bold in their counsel with senior leaders. Because I mentor and train communications professionals to teach them how to do communications planning, I notice this lack of confidence, even when they know that what they're saying is the right thing to do. There's a lack of confidence and boldness that we need to overcome because there is no one more suited, more uniquely capable of approaching any number of different issues that companies face, than PR people. Our role goes far beyond media relations. We need to constantly have our finger on the pulse of what's happening throughout the organization, in the marketplace; social, political, economic issues that can impact the brand. We need to be taking that knowledge and information to senior leaders and providing them counsel and not shying away from that.


Dusty Weis:

So when you left the US, you guys didn't know yet that the plane had crashed. You assumed that there was probably something terrible that had happened, but you really didn't know, and details began to come out very quickly then that morning as the Colombian military found the remains of the plane on the side of the mountain, what had happened. How did that change what your job was and how you went about doing it once you actually knew that the plane had gone down?


Jennifer Hudson:

Well, emotionally, I was severely impacted by it, obviously. But my role in corp comm didn't necessarily change. My job was to help route information from what we knew on the ground through to corporate, fashion the statements, deliver that to media; I'm sure I was translating into Spanish, delivering that as well, and that didn't change, no matter what. I mean, my memory of that time is in a closed room that I had in the hotel with fax machines, computers, and the occasional food item to eat. But I was heads down in there for the days that I was in Colombia. When I stepped outside of that space, is when I saw the anguish in the families, or when I was headed up to my room. It was awful. It was awful.


Dusty Weis:

While Jennifer coordinated American Airlines' messaging, news began to trickle in from the mountainside of El Diluvio as well. Search crews had found the wreckage of the plane as well as five survivors, who were carried down the mountain on makeshift stretchers or airlifted to the hospital. Among them was Gonzalo Dussan.


Gonzalo Dussan:

When I get up off the fuselage of the plane, I remember my son.


Gonzalo Dussan:

He say, "Father, Father, help me."


Dusty Weis:

The father, who had been traveling with his wife and two children. His wife didn't survive the crash. His son survived the descent but succumbed to his injuries in the hospital. Only Gonzalo, his daughter, and two unrelated young adults made it, along with a dog that had been stowed in a carrier in the cargo hold. Jennifer tells me that the dog came back to the US and became the family pet of one member of the American Airlines critical incident team.


Dusty Weis:

In Jennifer's hotel room/command center, she coordinated updates about these and other developments as search crews combed the mountainside, eventually locating the 757's black box voice and data recorders. The work was grueling. The situation, heartbreaking. And with Christmas just a couple days away, Jennifer was running on fumes.


Jennifer Hudson:

I got a phone call that I was going to be going home and that they were sending our Chicago representative to Colombia, who also, I don't think spoke Spanish but by then, I think we had enough of a handle on things. I remember that she walked through the door and I just remember feeling this big relief that she was there. [Moaf 00:35:59] walked through the door. That's what we called her. We called her Moaf. When Moaf walked through the door, it was like sunshine coming through the door. I think that we hugged and I was very happy to have her there.


Dave Simmon:

In the days that followed the crash, the industry was shocked.


Dusty Weis:

Dave Simmon is a retired pilot who knew the Cali approach well and told the Canadian TV series Mayday that the crash was baffling for investigators.


Dave Simmon:

They were shocked because they didn't know how could a sophisticated airplane like the 757, flown by a well-respected international carrier like American Airlines with well-trained crews, get so far off course? Nobody could figure out, how did it happen?


Dusty Weis:

Only by combing through the flight data and cockpit recordings did investigators finally piece together the unlikely series of small errors that culminated in the disaster. The transcript of those cockpit recordings was made public, but the recordings themselves never were, though Jennifer and her colleagues heard them as they prepared the company's response to the investigation's findings.


Jennifer Hudson:

There is nothing more traumatic or harrowing than listening to the black box audio of a plane that's gone down. I was in Al Becker's office and all of us were sort of huddled around. We were on one of those conference phones and we were listening to the audio. It gives me chills to even think about it now, but I can still hear the "whoop whoop, pull up! Pull up! Pull up, pull up!"


Ground Proximity Warning Sensor:

Pull up! Pull up!


Jennifer Hudson:

That's one thing I remember so clearly.


Ground Proximity Warning Sensor:

Pull up! Terrain. Terrain.


Jennifer Hudson:

And then I remember silence. Hearing black box audio is one of the most difficult things ever, especially if it ends in the kind of crash that we had in Colombia.


Dusty Weis:

David Ivey was an NTSB investigator who spoke on the Canadian TV series Mayday.


Dave Simmon:

This accident is known as a CFIT accident, which means controlled flight into terrain. By that, I mean the airplane was controlled by the crew and it was a perfectly normal, functioning airplane, and the crew flew the airplane into the mountain. It's one of the leading causes of accidents over the last hundred years.


David Ivey:

Two good pilots were led astray by a problem that they were trying to figure out, and at the time, they failed to do the basic thing: fly the airplane.


Documentary Announcer:

A court eventually ruled that the pilots of flight 965 had shown willful misconduct during the approach to Cali Airport. Survivor Mercedes Ramirez, who lost both her parents, continues to deal with the crash.


Mercedes Ramirez:

Hopefully, it's a wake-up call to pilots that no matter how many times you've flown to a city, you just have to be alert and aware because every little move that you make, you have the lives of people in your hands.


Dusty Weis:

Often lost in the news coverage and press releases about a disaster like this is the mark that it leaves not just on survivors, but first responders, investigators, and even the company spokespeople who lived the trauma, day in and day out, in the course of their duties. Jennifer Hudson says there's no way to immerse yourself in someone else's grief like that and emerge unchanged.


Jennifer Hudson:

After having been in Colombia and then knowing what those families had gone through, everything from arriving in the airport with the throng of reporters to finally hearing what those people on the plane experienced, what the pilots were listening to in their confusion, or really just unknowing about what was going on... it was tough, Dusty. It was pretty traumatic. It makes the hairs on your head and all over your body just stand on end.


Dusty Weis:

You were sent down into this situation having been on the job for only three weeks. I know in the fields of public relations and crisis communications, there's sort of the "Oh, that person, they're the rookie" mentality, a little bit of that, that goes around, but when you went down and went through this and then came back and saw your colleagues again, did they treat you differently for your having been through this?


Jennifer Hudson:

I know that there was a great deal of empathy. I think I felt like I had always been treated with respect, but I was definitely respected.


Dusty Weis:

I think your story is especially interesting for comms professionals because a lot of people will work for 30 or 40 years in this career and never experience a situation that's anywhere close to as intense as what you did with the stakes that high. For me, it's always been kind of an important touchstone as my career has advanced to look back at the experiences you've been through, if you feel nervous before a pitch, if you have a client who's upset, where you can at least sort of take a deep breath and remind yourself, "Well, at least no one's lives are on the line here. This is just a pitch. This is just an angry client." Are there times when you look at a situation that you have now and say, "Well, at least this isn't Colombia"?


Jennifer Hudson:

I don't really think of it in those terms.


Dusty Weis:

Well, you should try. It helps a lot.


Jennifer Hudson:

Well, what I do do, I mean, I don't think, "At least this isn't Colombia." I mean, it was almost 30 years ago now. What I've taken from it is the experience of being in that kind of traumatic situation so much so that I don't get easily rattled and I have to exercise a greater degree of empathy with clients who think they're in a crisis, "You think this is a crisis? This ain't nothin'!", who think they're in a crisis and meet them where they are so that I can support them throughout.


Jennifer Hudson:

Issues management is different from a crisis and in many cases, what I'm dealing with with clients is issues management. Now, issues can rise to the level of a crisis if left untended and if you're not communicating through them and filling the void, but I don't know that I have experienced a true crisis of that magnitude. And even hearing you position it that way, that you can work 30 or 40 years and not experience something like that, I'd never even really thought about that. It's just my experience, but yeah, I guess it is sort of unusual.


Dusty Weis:

You're one of the lucky ones, quote-unquote.


Jennifer Hudson:

And I think I think of it that way because as I said, while I was on the ground there, it wasn't the first crash I had experienced. It allows me to have this level of calm and focus in the situation that I think is very beneficial. Now, I might have a nervous breakdown and freak out afterwards, but when I'm in the moment, I am dealing with the issue.


Dusty Weis:

Jennifer stayed in the aviation sector for seven more years after the crash of Flight 965. In 2004, she branched out as an independent Strategic Communications consultant in South Florida, which today, has coalesced as her firm, ThinkBeyond Public Relations. Among her areas of expertise: training and mentoring communications professionals so they can lead clients through messaging workshops that operationalize and align good PR practices with sound business strategy. You can tune in for one of her regular informational seminars or Clubhouse sessions…


Jennifer Hudson:

I really help organizations ensure that they are prepared for any type of situation like that by going through a communications planning process that allows them to think about who their target audiences really should be, what the messaging is that they need, and which channels are the best channels for them to engage to do that. And StratChat is really sort of my gift to communications professionals. I hosted a four week series in January where I went through the four phases of communications planning each week with an expert. So the first week we'd talk about research and the second week we talked about planning. The third week we talked about implementation and the fourth week we talked about evaluation.


Jennifer Hudson:

I've moved that conversation to Clubhouse. I'm such a Clubhouse fan. I'm a total Clubhouse fangirl. So I've moved the conversation to Clubhouse and I host it weekly on Thursdays at 3:00. I'm going to do hot seats where I put people in the hot seat and ask them about their challenges as communications professionals, dealing with strategy, trying to convince clients of the need for a strategic approach. Yesterday, I did a session where I just kind of walked through the communications planning process and took some questions from folks. I'll have guests on. So that's what I'm doing with StratChat.


Dusty Weis:

Well, that sounds like something I'd like to tune in to. How do I find you?


Jennifer Hudson:

You can follow Strategic Communicators. It's a club on Clubhouse. You have to be on Clubhouse, obviously, to access it. Clubhouse is still in beta so you need an invitation currently to be a part of it, but millions and millions of people are on the app every day.


Jennifer Hudson:

So you have to be on Clubhouse. You look for the Strategic Communicators club and ask to receive notifications and when the club is on, you'll learn about it. Or you can follow me on Instagram as well, @thinkbeyondpr. I always post when I'm going live on StratChat Weekly. It's every Thursday at 3:00 p.m.


Dusty Weis:

I'll also add that you are a great follow on LinkedIn, which is where I've met you and follow you. "Jennifer R. Hudson" is how folks find you there. Jennifer R. Hudson, you're the former vice president of communications for British Airways, former PR manager at the Sabre Group, and, of course, a former corporate communications rep for American Airlines.


Dusty Weis:

This is the kind of story that a lot of people don't have to tell. It's a kind of story that is deeply personal and it's the kind of story that can help make other professional communicators better, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart for having the fortitude to share it here. It has been an absolute pleasure getting to talk to you and glean some of these insights from you, so thank you for joining us on Lead Balloon.


Jennifer Hudson:

Thank you, Dusty. Thank you.


Dusty Weis:

That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. Please make sure you're subscribed in your favorite app or maybe tell a friend if you've heard something you like on the show. Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Check out our website, podcampmedia.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.


Dusty Weis:

Until the next time, folks. Thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



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