US Airways’ Happy Accident

It’s not often a brand finds itself in the middle of a big story with a happy ending, but that’s the situation that US Airways is facing. And pr and branding experts have a word of advice: Leave it alone.

US Airways flight 1549, en route to Charlotte, N.C., from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, created a media spectacle yesterday as a flock of birds apparently disabled its engines, forcing an emergency landing in the Hudson River. Amazingly, no one was killed or even injured.

While the airline has yet to address the issue with, say, an ad saluting the pilot–“Those decisions haven’t been made yet,” said a rep. (Reps from Moses Anshell, US Airways’ lead ad agency, could not be reached.)–PR and branding execs said the event will give US Airways’ brand a boost, though it may not be long lasting. “After a month, people are going to forget about it,” said Brad Scott, a senior director at Landor Associates. “It may be a neutral to positive bump.”

In the short-term, though, the story is presenting the brand in a very flattering light. Experts say the news has several positives for US Airways, namely:

• No one was killed or injured.

• The airline apparently wasn’t to blame. “It’s not their fault that the plane had to go down,” said Howard Rubenstein, founder of Rubenstein Associates. “If it had been a failure of their airplane that they might have been responsible for, it would have been a somewhat different message.”

• The pilot, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger III, is seen as a hero. “Certainly in New York and maybe even nationally, the pilot will be honored repeatedly,” said Rubenstein.

• The fact that the pilot was apparently well-trained will reflect well on the way US Airways runs its business.

Those four factors led Rubenstein to conclude that US Airways’ brand will get a ruboff, if the brand doesn’t try to capitalize on the moment. “I give them an A-plus so far,” Rubenstein said. “As long as they’re not really boastful now, they will come off improving their brand dramatically.”

How dramatically is hard to say. Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, Atlanta, said that US Airways has been perceived as a middle-tier player. (The brand spent just $4 million on U.S. measured media for the first 10 months of 2008, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.) “They weren’t really the shining stars of the air carriers,” she said. “US Airways had a lot of troubles and people feel they were cutting costs everywhere, but good for them.”

Meanwhile, when asked for parallels to US Airways’ situation, branding and PR pros were stumped. Rubenstein said several brands were seen positively after responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks with donations and aid, but as for this current situation, Rubenstein said, “This really looks like a one-time thing.”