April 28, 2017

Another day, another traveler removed from a plane for seemingly ridiculous reasons, and a statement from the airline that leaves me scratching my head: ‘Our flight crews are extensively trained to ensure the safety and security of all customers.’


Is that really the best we can do? Especially given the hyper-focus in social and news media right now on how airlines treat their passengers?


You don’t have to be Delta or United to have a negative customer experience randomly go viral – we see situations like this in healthcare IT as well. One of the reasons it can be so hard to respond well is that each specific situation is unique and unexpected. It’s not hard to predict that some kind of incident with your customers will happen at some point, but you can’t always plan for every specific scenario.


So how can an organization be prepared to respond well to unexpected incidents?


I have two pieces of advice:


1. Identify the core consumer experience principles you want to use to guide your response.


Identifying and agreeing on principles is an important first step. If you have agreement on the big picture, fleshing out the details for a specific event is much more straightforward. For example, you might decide that your core principles are: we never blame the customer, and we always sympathize with our customers.


You might be thinking: what if the customer is at fault? What if legal says we can’t admit wrongdoing? Won’t staff feel thrown under the bus? All reasonable questions, but despite all of those valid issues, these are the principles that will inevitably be the foundation for the CEO’s open letter to customers if the issue goes viral.


Why? Because at that point it’s not about the actual facts of the actual incident, it’s about how your audiences feel about the incident and your response.


Looking at the statement from Delta, the core principle seems to be “Customer safety is our number one concern.” That’s probably the most important overall business principle they could have, but is it the top consumer experience principle? Is that really what they want to stand for as a brand? Do customers differentiate between Delta and United and Jet Blue based on perceived safety or based on how they think they will be treated?


So far Delta has kept its head down on this one, and maybe that will work, but if it goes viral like the United thing? You can bet the CEO will be out there saying stuff like, “We deeply regret the incident. We never want our customers to be in such an uncomfortable situation. The crew was focused on complying with FAA regulations, and clearly failed to appreciate the urgency of the passenger’s need. We are reviewing this incident and looking at all of our relevant procedures to come up with better guidelines for our staff.” 


2. Don’t just think, “damage control,” think “brand building opportunity.”


This brings me to me my second piece of advice, if you have your principles well thought out, then you can turn events like this into PR opportunities rather than problems. Imagine if Delta made the statement in the previous paragraph before the incident had a chance to go viral. For many customers, an approach like that would actually foster a positive image of the brand, and make Delta look like a company that really cares about its customers.


Sure, legal won’t like it, but if you also decide ahead of time that you are willing to risk a little erosion of your optimal legal position to prevent major damage to your brand, then legal has the guidance they need to help you say the right thing without giving away too much. Same goes for staff morale – if staff understand that this is how we respond to issues like this and it is not about blaming them, then you can handle any concerns with good internal communications.


The key is thinking ahead in a strategic way about how you are going to deal with issues like this in general. Then you are less likely to do the wrong thing in the heat of the moment.


Pulling together a PR crisis strategy for your company? Aria can help. Send me an email at scollins@ariamarketing.com. Also, be sure to follow us on Twitter at @AriaMarketing to get our live-thoughts on major PR stories as they unfold.

Blog post written by:
Scott Collins
Author: Scott Collins