Vinney Pillai, corporate communications lead, Mumbai International Airport shares her learnings from communicating during COVID

MIAL's communication lead Vinney Pillai speaks about the challenges of communicating during COVID

It would not be far-fetched to assume that future generations looking up the word 'unprecedented' in the dictionary will come across mentions of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic which started in China spread globally and saw an adverse effect on various sectors and industries, including aviation.

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport, India's second busiest airport, is no stranger to the virus having previously tackled crises like Ebola and SARS amongst others. Thus, when the Indian Government issued the first directive on coronavirus on January 18, action was immediately taken to establish safety measures at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) for passengers as well as airport personnel.

The communication strategy 

In such a scenario, we at corporate communications evaluated the available avenues for communication and devised an integrated communications strategy to generate and maintain awareness on the ongoing operations, regulations and measures undertaken at CSMIA. 

The approach was three-pronged and included the adoption of a 360-degree communication approach with signage on advisories at the airport, implementation of a unified social media strategy to address passenger concerns and queries as well as proactive engagement with the media to keep them abreast with the latest information.

Keeping in mind the concerns and queries of travellers, an evaluation of the passenger journey through the airport was conducted by the team to demarcate relevant areas for placement of information in the form of signage, posters, or digital displays. With travellers already on the move and due for arrival at the airport, the team had to work quickly and even well into the night to ensure that relevant information on the new procedures and safety precautions was placed strategically throughout the airport right from entry. 

Being one of the primary airports in the country, the airport authorities also ensured that these messages were available in three languages – English, Hindi, and Marathi – for the benefit of all passengers transiting via CSMIA.

Activating social media 

CSMIA's social media handles were also activated with immediate effect to provide instant updates to passengers. This move was welcomed particularly by the passengers who had taken to social media for addressing their concerns and queries. Daily updates on passenger screenings, safety precautions and safety initiatives amongst others were posted on all social media handles to inform the travellers travelling via CSMIA.

The ever-changing regulation and guidelines added to the uncertainty of the situation and anxiety amongst the passengers. In a bid to minimise inconvenience, MIAL and its stakeholders jointly worked to meet the demanding requirements of infrastructure and personnel. In keeping with the communication strategy, we extensively communicated all the new initiatives undertaken at CSMIA like the installation of hand sanitisers at all counters including check-in, Immigration, and customs, amongst others along with sanitisation and disinfection practices.

Round-the-clock queries from media were also being answered on health & safety initiatives, the number of passengers screened and much more.

Addressing False claims Proactively

Various false claims were being made on social media like long queuing time at the airport which created stress amongst passengers. Anxious passengers reached out to MIAL with their concerns and MIAL was quick to counter the claims by providing accurate information to the queries from media as well as on CSMIA’s social media handles. 

Strict approval processes were put in play which meant anticipating the time taken for gathering and verifying information, sourcing approvals, and executing the tasks in a short period.

Dealing with reduced resources and increasing media queries

Being an essential service, CSMIA continued to operate through the lockdown for cargo, repatriation and charter operation while simultaneously preparing for the resumption of flight operations. 

However, several of our supporting agencies had closed in adherence to the lockdown norms, which proved to be challenging, for requirements such as branding activities - printing of signage, floor markers and more, photography and videography, amongst others.

Additionally, CSMIA continued to encourage a self-reliant experience for passengers through the adoption of new-age technology to minimize direct contact between passengers and airport personnel. 

The airport's SOPs for the safety of passengers and employees included online check-in, self-baggage drop, contactless payments, amongst others were encouraged by continuously seeding information through media channels, social media handles of CSMIA and branding across the airport terminal.

Video Communication

To reassure passengers of the safety measures they could expect at the airport, MIAL created a video to encompass the 'new normal' of the passenger journey through the airport. 

Furthermore, MIAL organized a media tour where the journalists experienced and documented the SOPs right from the terminal entrance till the boarding gate and through the exit. The team also made sure to establish and sustain a firm understanding with publications attempting to capture video bytes on the premises on any given day.

Apart from the airport terminal, CSMIA's air cargo services which were operational with new safety protocols despite the transport constraints and stringent regulations due to COVID-19 was dealing with hurdles such as irregular road transport service. This initial challenge faced by the cargo team saw the Corporate Communication team immediately acting upon by seeding stories about the challenges faced at the terminal to get the support of the Government to allow the freight movement.

During this time, there were also false claims on the lack of safety practices for employees at CSMIA's air cargo terminal. The team quickly adopted two methods of addressing these claims – direct and indirect. Directly addressing included the provision of statements with supporting images and videos to the journalist rebutting the allegations, while the indirect technique involved publishing a press note on the safety measures to all the media houses. 

Publishing stories around safety initiatives undertaken like the sanitization of all cargo-carrying vehicles moving in and out of the cargo terminal also contributed to building a positive image of the brand.

Impact

The results of the corporate communication team's efforts on the reportage of accurate information have been quite successful. 

Over 100 stories appeared in mainstream, trade, online and regional media publications creating awareness on CSMIA's efforts to curb the spread of the virus. Proactive media engagement helped to shift the narrative towards positive stories around CSMIA showcasing the work undertaken by the airport during these challenging times.

But the proof of the pudding was evident upon the resumption of domestic flight operations. Despite being faced with a cap on flight movements as directed by the State Government of Maharashtra, CSMIA received an overwhelming response in terms of inflow and outflow of passengers where the airport catered to lakhs of travellers with thousands of flights plying to and fro from the airport.

The pandemic has been an eye-opener for everyone and has taught various lessons to overcome challenges by facing the innumerable odds. Being open-minded to creative and out-of-the-box solutions can be a boon to ensuring business continuity, mainly when dealing with limited resources on hand. 

While the situation emphasized the importance of strategic thinking, it also highlighted the importance of collaborative thinking. The support of all airport stakeholders was a crucial factor in ensuring seamless operations at the airport amid the fear of the pandemic and lockdown. 

Above all, it proved the case of mind over matter as the driving factor behind the success of any venture. It was this prevalent mindset of each and every individual at CSMIA that helps the airport provide a memorable experience for its passengers.

Vinney Pillai is head – corporate communications, Mumbai International Airport Limited.