Silence is golden? Not.

Text: ceo magazine editorial staff | Photos: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Trust in society – September 2019


If there were something like a Swiss Trust Award, Beatrice Tschanz would be the hands-down winner. Probably many times. But for sure in 1998 when Swissair Flight 111, an MD-11 under way from New York to Geneva, went down off the eastern coast of Nova Scotia taking all 215 passengers and 14 crew members to their death. A human catastrophe by any stretch of the imagination, but equally so a corporate one. Beatrice Tschanz was Communications Head of Swissair at the time. What she accomplished in the hours, days, weeks and months after the crash remains etched in the memory of everyone who followed the event.

“Look at any of the past statistics you want – all show that after a crash like this, bookings are down by 40 per cent,” says the Zurich native. “But the unbelievable thing about Swissair was that we didn’t have a single cancellation.” Even today, more than 20 years later, she’s still impressed by the trust the nation had in its flag carrier.

We meet at the Goethe Bar. Beatrice Tschanz’s strong, clear voice has no trouble drowning out the coffee­house soundscape of rattling dishes and chattering voices. How did she do it? How was it possible that Swissair customers didn’t lose their trust in the company? “We already said on the second day that we would publish every confirmed fact,” recalls Tschanz. “That was a paradigm shift.” The rule until then in similar cases: silence; walls; slow-walking the issues; only admitting what’s been proven unquestionably. “But we did the exact opposite. And the customers noticed that.” For their part, the SAir lawyers were anything but pleased, fearing the company would face even more claims for damages. But Tschanz was convinced of her all-cards-on-the-table strategy – and rightly so, as things turned out.

This particular communications expert doesn’t think highly at all of the widely applied “salami tactic”, where the public is supplied with nothing more than thin slices of information; sound bites. “You’ve seen it used so often, and it doesn’t do any good – in fact it makes matters worse.” The media annals are full of such examples. Often they have to do with environmental disasters like Deepwater Horizon, or sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, or the Oxfam aid organisations. As to Switzerland, Tschanz mentions the UBS case and its former Chairman, Marcel Ospel. In the midst of the exhaust scandal Volkswagen Group brought on itself, Tschanz was asked to act as a consultant in “sub-areas”, as she puts it.

“I recommended to then VW Group Chairman Martin Winterkorn that he man up and take responsibility.”

She sighs and raises her eyebrows: “But you could forget that. And today, we know where the whole thing has led.”

Beatrice Tschanz

Born in Zurich (1944), Beatrice Tschanz studied history and phil­ology before starting her career as a journalist and then changing to communications in 1987, ultimately to hold a variety of management positions. From 1997 until shortly after the Swissair grounding in 2001, she was Head of Communi­cations at SAirGroup. From 2001 to 2003, she held the same post at Sulzer Medica Centerpulse, where she also became a member of the Executive Board. She then went into business on her own as a communications consultant. She is Chairwoman of “Oase Holding Wohnen im Alter” and active as a personal counsellor. She will remain a member of the Swiss Federal Commission for Space Affairs (EKWF) until the end of 2019. Beatrice Tschanz is married and lives in Rapperswil-Jona.

“They just trusted me. Which of course spurred me on to do my absolute best.”

Her special brand of frankness and candour is something Beatrice Tschanz learned already in her own family circle. “My father used to tell me and my sister: ‘If you’ve botched something up, come home and we’ll talk about it.’ Being trusted like that makes you absurdly strong.” She’s seen what the opposite has meant in friends who as kids were constantly badgered and not trusted to do anything right. “They only managed to build up a semblance of self-confident straightforwardness much later in life. I, on the other hand, was spoon-fed giant portions of it already at an early age.”

Beatrice Tschanz grew up in a well-to-do family home on the Zürichberg. Her father was strict, she says, but always fair. She nevertheless felt the urge to spread her wings. She wanted to go to Brazil. As a student of history and philology, she was an avid reader of the job adverts in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”. One day, she ran across a listing from the Union Bank of Switzerland (UBS) – they were seeking an assistant for a small new branch in Brazil. “Of course, they wanted a man, but I realised: That’s my job!” Instead of submitting a written application, she went to the bank’s headquarters and trotted directly to the cubicle of the newly named manager of the foreign rep office. “He thought I was pretty cheeky, but somehow he liked my brazen way.” Naturally, at home dear Dad went nuclear at first. “But then he heard ‘UBS’ and decided in his supreme wisdom: ‘You can handle that.’” Fourteen days later, Beatrice Geiser (her maiden name at the time) was sitting on a plane to Brazil. Once there, instead of taking dictation from her boss, she travelled the country with Swiss invest­ors.

“They just trusted me,” she says, “which of course spurred me on to do my absolute best.”

Upon her return to Switzerland two years later, she started her career as a journalist – all of 18 years with Ringier. But she didn’t want to “grow old” writing articles her whole life, so it was an easy decision when Michael Ringier offered her the job of Communications Head for the company. Ringier financed her advanced training at UC Berkeley. “A news­paper doesn’t really need a communications department,” says Tschanz, “but for me it was an ideal opportunity to practice my act.”

And boy did she make mistakes! For example, by announcing the discontinuation of the “Blick” for women with a look on her face as if she were attending a funeral, or overenthu­s­ias­­tically trumpeting Ringier’s participation in the federal government’s first “Stop Aids” campaign. “Wrong. Totally wrong,” she hollers and then laughs herself to tears. “Later, I showed my employees video recordings of these monumental press conferences as examples of what a no-go is all about.”

But if you’re allowed to make mistakes – like Beatrice was as a young girl – you become stronger and more self-confident. And that’s the basis for others trusting you. She benefited from this again with her next employer, Jelmoli AG, where she experienced her first thorny professional situation; namely, the “streamlining” of her 157-member team.

“That was hard. But I learned that you have to communicate clearly and honestly, not ,with crocodile tears and false promises.”

Because one thing always holds true: communication is important, but the job’s not finished with just that. Communication is only authentic when it is followed by actions and adherence to what has already been communicated.

Staunchly upholding this principle, she gained international renown and respect as SAir’s communications head. After the airline was permanently grounded in 2001, she was taken on board by Sulzer Medica. The company was in a severe crisis at the time: in the USA, its sale of faulty hip implants had led to multimillion-dollar class action suits being filed. Indeed a challenge for Tschanz, but also a major step: she was appointed to the Executive Board.

Alas, as illustrious as her career has been, this communications expert has also suffered heart-wrenching moments. Like when she learned she couldn’t bear children of her own. When in 1985 she was diagnosed with cancer, or in her late 50s lost her first husband after 25 years of marriage. Not to mention when Sulzer Medica was sold in 2003, resulting in her being granted a sizeable severance payment only to then be criticised as a rip-off artist, even though the amount was much smaller than the sums received by her male colleagues. “But I always knew that I’d just keep on keeping on,” she says. “The solid fundament I got from home helped me a lot.”

As we say goodbye and she goes to get her jacket, she’s approached by someone at a neighbouring table. Tschanz responds with her typical warmth. Afterwards, she chuckles: “That happens to me to this very day. Total strangers walk up and greet me.” Trust grows slowly; it’s lost quickly. But if carefully nurtured, it clearly lasts a long, long time.

Beatrice Tschanz – up close and personal

Your basic principle?
You are stronger than you think. Women in particular often have too little trust in themselves, which is a pity.

What’s your favourite holiday destination?
My feel-good place is Sardinia. I love the wildness there, paired with wondrous places and inlets. The sea is very important to me – after all, I’m a water sign. What’s more, there’s always a breeze in Sardinia, and the food’s outstanding.

What goal do you still want to achieve this year?
Why just one? I’ve got a whole bunch of them! This year for example …