The Spirit of Delta 

Delta Air Lines’ COVID-19 vaccination campaign, “Protected together. Connected together” exceeded its objective by 20%. The campaign gave a glimpse into airline crisis communications. Airline public relations is not the most popular career amongst young PR students, but maybe it should be. 

Delta Air Lines, named to J.D. Power’s Best Airlines list in 2021, has many opportunities for PR professionals seeking a fast-paced, aviation-related career. Speakers Gina Laughlin and Savannah Huddleston had students tearing up at PRSSA ICON 2022 while watching a video about the airline’s time through the pandemic. Students also learned much about different successful PR tactics while spending an ICON breakout session analyzing how Delta responded to several different situations. 

Laughlin is the vice president of global employee communications at Delta Air Lines and Huddleston is the CEO of communications. 

Protecting People 

During the height of COVID, Delta was nothing short of inspirational. They released a video showing Delta pilot, Chris Dennis, sharing his story about the pain he felt during COVID. 

After flying one of the last planes in, Dennis took photos of all the planes parked on the runway he landed on in California and expressed his devastation on a written note. 

The note stated how chilling it was to see all the aircraft on the ground. The note also wrote, “When someone finds this, it must be the light at the end of the tunnel.” Sure enough, a crew member found his note. 

The video really showcased the family-like dynamic Delta fosters for employees in their careers. During the pandemic, employees had virtual town hall meetings with Delta CEO, Ed Bastian. Laughlin and Huddleston shared that during these meetings, employees were able to see Bastian in a vulnerable, yet confident state. Delta also consulted  Dr. Henry Ting from Mayo Clinic when answering questions from employees and their families. 

During the campaign, the internal communications team prioritized keeping employees safe and informed. They needed to understand employees’ needs at that time. “We helped conversation in the business; it’s about putting our finger on the pulse of the employees,” Laughlin said. 

Internal communication at Delta is vital for both crisis situations and day-to-day operations. It was important that internal communications practitioners understood what employees needed and how they could make employees’ jobs easier. 

Laughlin and Huddleston emphasized creating a safe environment within the company to make customers feel safe while traveling. Delta also provided free COVID testing for employees during this process. 

“We put people before profit,” Laughlin said. 

Protected together. Connected together. 

When vaccines became available, Delta did not want to mandate the vaccine. After conducting surveys, the internal communications team found that only 50% of Delta employees were willing to receive the vaccine. 

Their goal was to vaccinate 75% of their employees. After conducting communication and research, they were able to understand what employees needed to feel safe getting the vaccine. Accessibility was a problem for Delta employees, so the company provided vaccination sites in locations such as airport break rooms.

With these tactics, they were able to get 95% of Delta employees vaccinated without a mandate, exceeding their goal by 20%. 

“We used every tool in our toolbox for the vaccine campaign,” Huddleston said. 

BLM and DEI 

In 2020, the death of George Floyd opened the eyes of many. At Delta, employees of color felt taken care of. 

Laughlin and Huddleston shared they approached this process in a very specific manner. It was important to know their audience and meet diverse groups of people where they are, rather than expecting them to be at a predetermined place. They strived to understand and have compassion for different perspectives in different communities. 

George Floyd’s death was directly addressed, and employees were encouraged to attend workshop-based groups to help them cope and feel safe in their company. 

“It’s grounded in the values of the company, what we stand for and where our employees are too, on any given issue,” Huddleston said. 

Overall, there was much to learn from Huddleston and Laughlin’s session regarding some of Delta’s internal communications responses. If you want to hear more, Laughlin also recently recorded a PR with the Pro’s podcast.

Macy Rosen is a sophomore at Kent State University studying public relations. Macy grew up in East Palestine, Ohio, about an hour away from Kent State. This year, Macy will take on the role of web manager for PRSSA Kent. This is her second year in PRSSA Kent and her first year on the executive board. Macy is excited to work alongside her co-manager, Maggie, and the rest of the PRSSA Kent executive board. Along with PR, Macy loves the beach, spontaneous adventures, and spending time with family and friends. Upon graduating, Macy hopes to become a member of an airline PR team such as Delta or American Airlines.

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