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Crash of CommAir Flight 4083


The Crash of CommAir Flight 4083
How to join a journalism and public relations course by using a simulation

Patricia Radin, Ph.D.
California State University—Hayward

The news conference is a source of curiosity, excitement, and motivation for beginning media students. When they see snippets of these events on TV, it all seems so glamorous–yet so competitive and mercilessly public if someone makes a slip. The reality, of course, is that it takes a lot of hard work and planning on both sides.

A live news conference exercise can be quite realistic. It is nicely bounded by a short time frame, a single theme, and the necessity for all the "reporters" and "PR people" to be in the same place at once. So, if the PR and journalism teachers can find an overlapping class period, they can engineer a simulation with plenty of surprises and challenges.

A simulated news conference, bringing together trained PR and journalism students, rewards good preparation and well-honed skills–and helps students to see why weak skills are a serious disadvantage. Long-term benefits include greater motivation and an experiential appreciation of just how their education will be applied when they are on the job.

A plane crash scenario was chosen because among possible crisis PR scenarios, it is familiar–journalism students immediately know how many good angles to pursue–and non-technical. In addition, a plane crash always involves several different agencies, providing for multiple PR roles.


Week 1
Journalism and PR teacher (both veterans of hundreds of news conferences) consult about specific goals for the exercise. Both classes should experience the tension, yet complementary objectives that would be evidenced in real life. Reporters should have to "dig" for buried details, accurately report facts and identify the lead and high-news-value details. PR people should anticipate reporters' needs, convey specific crisis messages, maintain a helpful attitude, be knowledgeable, and plan the event for maximum control.

Week 2
  • Project is kept secret from the journalism class.

  • PR students are told they'll be giving a news conference that will get live coverage. PR instructor provides skeleton "facts" about the crash to the students–time, place, conditions, list of four "dead" (including "Davis, Gray"–the governor–and the female pilot). Students contribute some great ideas.

  • Students volunteer for PR roles:
    CommAir PR Director, Assistant
    FAA Information Officer, Assistant
    Oakland International Airport PR Manager, Assistant
    NTSB Information Officer, Assistant

  • In response to student enthusiasm, several minor PR roles were invented: Eyewitness, Videographer, Messenger, Greeter. Non-participants are assigned to critique the exercise.

  • PR class uses conference planning to review the basics of crisis PR and to fashion each organization's distinctive PR message.

Week 3
  • Shortly after the journalism class meets, a "messenger" brings in a FedEx box. It contains news releases on CommAir letterhead. The journalism teacher distributes the releases and leads a discussion with surprised students on how to handle this. They will write their stories in the lab immediately afterwards.

  • Meanwhile, PR students run through their news conference – practicing with visual aids, clarifying who answers which questions, reviewing notes, checking body language, giving each other last-minute help. There is tremendous solidarity.

  • In 20 minutes, excited journalism students pour through the door, grab seats, pull out pens, etc.. CommAir gives a brief, somber opening statement without revealing many details. Oakland Airport distributes maps of the airport and indicates the crash site on an overhead slide. The FAA and NTSB briefly describe their roles. The video camera rolls. The hour-long news conference is underway.

Week 4
  • Journalism students receive feedback on their news stories from their teacher. Governor's "death" in the lead? Names spelled accurately? Facts reported correctly? They discuss tricks to working on deadline, taking notes being well informed, alert, etc.
  • PR students pass around copies of all the "coverage" (author names deleted). Who got mentioned? Were specific PR messages reported? What seemed effective? Coverage accurate? Parts of the hour-long videotape are replayed for a lively critique session.

  • Students on both sides tested their skills and discovered reasons to improve.
    PR students:
    "I wished I'd really known that background information cold."
    "They got my title wrong!"

    Journalism students:
    "I knew they had a strategy – but what was it?"
    "I missed the Gov. Davis thing because I was writing up some notes."

  • Students discovered the importance of well-honed skills.
  • Students were rewarded with tangible, realistic results. Student enthusiasm for their courses peaked.
  • A mass communication faculty observer highly praised the exercise.
Teachers were delighted, resolved to do it again.

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