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5 questions with ... Debbie Gann

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, April 19, 2012, at 7:25 a.m.

As vice president of communications and administration at Spirit AeroSystems, Debbie Gann has been in crisis communication mode since the company took a direct hit from an F-3 tornado Saturday night.

Gann was in her basement Saturday when she received a text that one of Spirit’s buildings had partially collapsed.

She knew the company already had implemented its emergency deployment plan.

Still, her first thought, said Gann, was “Did we get everybody downstairs in time?”

“That’s when I threw my shoes on and said, ‘I’m going to work.’ ”

As she headed to Spirit, she wondered what she would find.

It was “eerie driving in with no lights, and you could see the shadows of the toppled trees and the signage, and there was a lot of debris in the parking lot,” Gann said.

When she arrived, most of Spirit’s leadership and operational team were already there and starting to mobilize.

“The first order of business was to get search and rescue crews out into the buildings to make sure we truly had everybody accounted for,” she said.

The next was assembling her communication team.

In her role with Spirit, Gann has responsibility for communications and public relations, government relations, community relations, board relations, security, information assurance, trade compliance and photo and graphic services.

She joined Boeing’s commercial aircraft division in Wichita in 1990; that basically became Spirit AeroSystems when Boeing sold the division in 2005.

Before joining Boeing, Gann had been a television news reporter in Joplin, Mo., and Wichita. She has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Texas.

Q. 1 Your cellphone started ringing from reporters right after the storm and again early Sunday morning. You made a public statement at 10 a.m. What’s key in a time like that?

A. One of the keys to crisis communication is to make sure you’ve got a good line of communication and that you’re getting facts, not speculation, but share what you can share. About 10 that morning, I felt like we had done enough of an assessment, and I had a good understanding of what we needed to do the rest of the day. So we could brief the media at that point.

Q. 2 Although it’s back now, the lack of power was one of your biggest challenges. How so?

A. We were trying to communicate without all the tools we were accustomed to using. We had no power. We had no Internet access. We had no way, even from our own personal e-mail accounts, to send messages out to our employees, because we couldn’t access our employee distribution lists. So we had to rely on the media and Twitter.

Q. 3 You already had a crisis communication plan in place but had hoped you’d never have to use it. Any advice now that you’ve had to use it?

A. I’m sure glad we had one available and ready. You do those things, and you sometimes think, ‘I’m wasting my time.’ But I’ll tell you, it’s been invaluable over the last couple of days. … It sure helps to be prepared. Make sure you have a hard copy of the plan and you have an up-to-date contact list for all of your key folks. When you’re in the middle of a firefight, don’t expect perfection. … You’ve got to focus on what needs to be done and do it the best you can.”

Q. 4 Any surprises in all of this?

A. I’m surprised by how much team building comes out of something like this. … The entire Spirit team has really mobilized and focused on this same end goal of getting the company back up and back into production. … Everybody is working really long hours. I think you’re seeing just what is possible when you give everybody a really tough goal and set them loose to go accomplish it.

Q. 5 Has this been the hardest thing you’ve done in your communications career?

A. The really most challenging time … was really during the divestiture from Boeing, just because there was so much uncertainty among employees, including myself, and the community. We were trying to create a company that had no brand. We had to go out and introduce ourself to the industry ... (and) to employees. …. It was a long-term challenge. … You look back seven years, and I’m really proud of what we’ve created as a team. And hey, this is definitely No. 2. And I hope there’s not a No. 3.

Contact Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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