Three Tips For More Compelling Safety Memos

Three Tips For More Compelling Safety Memos
Claire Ealding
Jan 31, 2022

Despite mounting data about unsafe trends, why do certain dangerous behaviors or hazardous conditions continue? The answer may lie in how we communicate our safety insights in the first place.

Safety leaders understand that to help keep frontline employees safe, maintaining open communication and sharing up-to-date safety information is essential. This is especially true if time-sensitive issues require immediate attention. These safety communications typically go out in the form of memos, bulletins, emails, and so forth.

But if your flight department tends to disseminate information frequently, how do we help ensure that frontline employees read them? After all, a memo might not spur any change if the message is unclear, unfriendly, or uninteresting.

Let’s take a look at some of the common pitfalls safety leaders may encounter when communicating safety information to frontline employees and what you can do to help improve readership.

1 - Data Does Not Speak For Itself

Today’s flight departments accumulate lots of data related to flight operations. Although data is essential in identifying unsafe trends, it is all too easy for our memos, bulletins, and emails filled to the brim with statistics and charts. This is particularly so in aviation, where we’re often taught to approach situations with facts and figures rather than emotions or feelings.

But emotions are precisely what is needed to make our data into compelling safety messages. Psychologically, people are more likely to embrace a call to action or a change if they feel emotionally connected to the message or story. And statistics can provide a great point of entry for the safety message.

For instance, let’s assume you’re a safety manager writing a memo addressing a recent uptick in unstable approaches. There are a couple of different ways that this memo can be written:

The Data-Driven Memo
“Between 2017 to 2021, at XYZ Aviation, we collected data from 9,752 flights. Of those flights, 21% experienced an unstable approach, which has increased by about 3% every year. 83% of these unstabilized approaches result in a hard landing or long landing. Of the flights that had an unstable approach, 40% exceeded 1000 feet per minute below 500 feet AGL. Additionally, 26% unstable approaches were due to pilots not configuring for landing until below 1000 feet AGL. Another 24% were due to descending below the glideslope on short final. The remaining 10% were due to “other” issues."

A data-driven approach is clearly important to help reveal valuable safety insights that may otherwise remain undiscovered. However, if you managed to read the entire paragraph above without skimming over any of it, you’d likely be in the minority of readers. Although the data helps identify problem areas, it’s unclear what the solution is.

To be more engaging and valuable, we may need to tone down the amount of data and highlight the more important point: fixing the problem.

Let’s take a look at a different way to craft the same message:

The “Plain English” Memo
“At XYZ Aviation, roughly one out of every five approaches are unstabilized, which is the leading cause of hard landings and long landings.
Using FOQA data, we have learned that when aircraft fly faster than normal on approach, there is a greater tendency to descend at high rates and delay final flap extension for landing. We typically see these higher airspeeds and late configurations at busy airports, where the norm is for ATC to assign speed instructions on the final approach.
The Safety Department recommends that an approach speed no faster than 170 KIAS be maintained until at least a 4-mile final. This can help ensure compliance with our stabilized approach criteria and improve safety. Pilots are encouraged to advise ATC if they are unable or uncomfortable to accommodate with an assigned airspeed.”

The second version of the memo focuses more on the safety message than the data. The opening line contains an attention-grabbing statistic, and what follows is a scenario illustrating the problem and a proposed solution.

2 - Use Positive Framing

When we want people to change an undesirable behavior, we often do so by making them aware of the negative consequences. This is why all cigarette packages are covered with labels that warn smokers of the detrimental health effects of smoking.

However, we do not want to create negative connotations around safety constantly. Sometimes promoting a positive outcome or reward can be more effective at getting people on board with a change.

For example, runway incursions are a significant safety threat in aviation. But simply telling pilots of all the possible negative consequences of an accidental runway incursion is not very helpful. After all, for most experienced pilots, the dangers are usually fairly obvious. So instead, it’s best to frame the issue in a more positive light.

Here are two possible ways to frame a safety message positively and negatively.

Negative safety message
“In light of the recent uptick in runway incursions, your safety department wants to remind you of the dangers of runway incursions. A runway incursion could cause a collision with another aircraft, likely resulting in fatalities. A collision with another aircraft can also irreparably damage the reputation and assets of our company. Therefore, pilots must ensure the runway is clear before entering it.”

While it’s appropriate to acknowledge the dangers, dwelling on those dangers may not be enough to motivate people to change their behavior. Instead, proposing solutions may be more motivating. Let’s see how a positive safety message reads:

Positive safety message
“In light of the recent uptick in runway incursions, your safety department has created a runway safety training bulletin for you to review. In this bulletin, we’ll address some of the leading causes of runway incursions at XYZ Aviation and how to prevent them from happening. This bulletin will help pilots find ways to reduce distractions and enhance situational awareness not just on the ground but across all phases of flight, and help decrease the likelihood of runway incursions in the future.”

In the second example, the recommendations are both practical and relevant, which is more likely to result in a higher likelihood of compliance.

3 - Make It Relatable

An essential part of getting through to your readers is first getting to know them. For instance, the incredible success of internet marketing is largely based on the ability to know one's audience. Social media is famous for pinpointing exactly what makes each user tick. This way, advertisements only go out to users that relate most to what they’re selling, thus having a higher impact.

But while the intentions of those in marketing may be somewhat disingenuous, getting to know your workforce can help you craft more compelling and relatable messages when it comes to aviation safety.

Here are some tips for accomplishing this:

  • Conduct a culture survey - If you want to get to know the inner motivations of your workplace, consider conducting an anonymous Culture Survey. Taking the time to understand your workforce will go a long way in making your data impactful. A mistake many organizations make is assuming that they know what their frontline workers are feeling or thinking, and often are surprised when faced with the results from a culture survey.
  • Don’t live in the past - Using old accident case studies that happened many decades ago may have little impact on behaviors today (particularly on the younger generation). While aviation accidents provide us with cautionary tales, accidents are now becoming so rare that we lose opportunities to present more relevant information. This is why keeping training fresh with up-to-date case studies that focus on current trending events may be more powerful.
  • Tailored training - Out-of-the-box training has its merits, but tailored training is even better. If safety reports indicate specific problem areas, integrate training of those specific areas into initial and recurrent training.

Do you have an effective way of writing compelling safety communications that we haven't discussed here? Let us know in the AvBrite Community, where all aviation safety matters are discussed! Click here to become a member.

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