(Re-published from The Daily Orange | Oct. 24, 2017) As the deadliest terrorist attack on United States citizens before 9/11, the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 shook up practices in professional fields including the airline security and public relations industries.
“Not every nation has uniform or excellent security,” William C. Banks said. “With global travel, your airline security is only as strong as your weakest link.”
The flight was carrying 259 people — including 35 Syracuse University students — from London before a bomb in the cargo hold exploded on Dec. 21, 1988. The terrorist attack killed all on board and 11 people on the ground.
Activism by the parents and families of the victims was instrumental in influencing national security practices. In 1990, Congress passed the Aviation Security Improvement Act lobbied for by some of the victims’ families to strengthen airport security measures.
William Banks, founding director of the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, said there was little security specifically devoted to airlines before the passage of the act. Air marshals would ride on flights with a suspected security risk, airline personnel would be screened, and cargo would occasionally be inspected. These personnel and cargo security measures were increased as a result of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing, with special attention from the U.S. aviation industry.
However, Banks said, making these practices effective required international cooperation. “Not every nation has uniform or excellent security,” he said. “With global travel, your airline security is only as strong as your weakest link.” Banks said there was international cooperation between countries to implement screening procedures similar to ones in the US. He added many of the current practices were created in response to the Pan Am Flight 103 and 9/11 attacks.
The incident also showed how the public relations field was underprepared in crisis management.
Maria Russell, a public relations professor in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, said spokespeople from Pan American World Airways and the U.S. State Department lacked the training needed the handle the attack.
In the wake of the bombing, Pan Am implemented a “buddy system” where each family was assigned a liaison for communication with the airline. The liaisons were unprepared and untrained for interaction with families who had lost loved ones, she said. “That ended up infuriating the families more than making the families appreciate the effort,” Russell said.
Russell co-authored a book with three SU journalism professors on the news coverage of Pan Am Flight 103. In the book, she examined how organizations responded to the bombing. Of the public relations strategies Russell examined, she said the spokespeople in Lockerbie were most prepared and professional. Briefings were held every morning and afternoon to disseminate information and keep the public up to date.
It’s been said that one positive point of Pan Am Flight 103 was the involvement of Superintendent Angus Kennedy, a policeman from the Scottish city of Glasgow who acted as a police spokesperson and guided families through media interaction. “They were incredible in how they responded to the families, the media, with so much common sense,” Russell said. “Basically: How would you like to be treated if this were you?”