5 Lessons Small Businesses Can Learn from Airline PR Disasters

This year, a certain U.S. airline has been unwillingly popping up in the news. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, though, there’s no need to rehash the details of the cases.

The dismal takeaway that we’re getting from the incidents is this: airline customer service has sunk to a shocking new low that seems to be occurring at every level of the corporation—from flight attendant service and pilot behavior to a CEO attitude problem.

For startup founders and small business owners, treating customers in such a way may seem unfathomable. And one could argue that smaller companies would never have to deal with similar PR disasters simply because they value their clients too much to get into those kinds of situations.

However, there are some crucial lessons to learn from the airline’s mistakes. Whether you’re re-evaluating your policies or planning for expansion, keep the following in mind.

1. You Need to React Quickly—and Carefully

People like being kept in the loop, so promptly inform them of what’s going on and don’t take hours or longer to respond (like the airline did). Stalling for time implies that you’re trying to come up with a cover-up to excuse your actions.

When you do respond, steer clear of language that shifts the blame away from your business and lays it on the customer or anyone else; for example, in the airline’s communications, the CEO used the damning words “re-accommodate,” “volunteers,” and “voluntarily,” which were met with both ridicule and indignation.

Also, be aware of what people are saying about your business, as this might influence you own statements to the public. Understand that there could be published evidence that contradicts any defense you have prepared.

On that note, internal communications are not as confidential as you think they are, so be just as careful with what you say privately to your team. For example, in a letter to his employees, the airline CEO stated: “I also emphatically stand behind all of you.” This infuriated the public more because this implied that he was defending or, even worse, commending them for their actions during the incident.

2. Sincerity and Transparency Can Go a Long Way

The airline’s first response to the incident was met with outrage because what should have been an apology, or an admission of guilt, was replaced by typical corporate speak. In fact, in this particular case, it went one step further by turning the situation around and blaming the outcome on the passenger (the customer!) by referring to their actions and history.

(The wonderful irony is that just a month before this all happened, the airline’s CEO had been named PRWeek’s 2017 Communicator of the Year.)

Small businesses simply don’t have enough money or enough of a customer base to protect them if their reputation takes a blow. On the other hand, they do have a personal, more human edge over bigger companies, and they can react quicker because they rarely have layers of bureaucracy to go through before they can officially/publicly respond to a matter.

It also doesn’t hurt to add a little empathy in your communications. The customer may not always be right, but this doesn’t give a business cause to feign ignorance nor to take an arrogant or defensive stance on an issue.

3. Understand, Respect, and Embrace Social Media

These days, a business is the sum of what other people say about it online: in reviews, comments, social conversations and other online platforms. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a great reputation in the past; one bad period of online publicity is enough to ruin a company.

Another thing is that audiences love jumping on the outrage bandwagon, especially if they’ve been stewing about a particular business, service or industry for a while. I’m guilty of this too: my previous experiences with U.S. airlines were dreadful, so when the incident involving this particular airline first came out, I instinctively sympathized with the passengers without knowing the full story. This is the nature of social media reactions.

Due to its immediate and ubiquitous nature, social media can be your brand’s biggest advocate but can just as easily lead to its downfall. One way to anticipate impending catastrophes is to set up a system to monitor what’s being said about your brand online. Not only will this alert you to any potential problems regarding your business, but it also opens up an informal mode of communication between you and your customers.

Lastly, make sure that community / social media managers are briefed correctly on how to handle PR incidents. If you can afford it, set up a crisis management team; it’s worth dedicating some resources to this part of the business to save you from future headaches. Having legal representation on retainer isn’t a bad idea either.

4. The Public Might Know Your Policies Better than You Do

One of the controversies surrounding the offending airline was that its actions contradicted its contract of carriage. If a business can’t abide by its own standards, then it becomes untrustworthy in the public’s view. So, make sure that your actions, as well as any public communications issued by your business, are not contradicted by your own regulations.

Keep yourself and your employees up to date on standard business practices and procedures. Remind them to perform their job duties as though they are constantly under public scrutiny.

Think about internal policies as well. As a small business, you probably won’t have a very large team, which makes it easier to ensure that every single employee is briefed on how to deal with upset clients and crisis situations. It’s important to make very clear what is and isn’t acceptable behavior (such as anything that compromises a customer’s psychological or physical well-being). This may seem like obvious advice, but if international corporations aren’t above crossing the line, then neither are smaller companies.

5. Learn to Take Responsibility, Apologize, and Compensate

Issuing a heartfelt, personal message might not make your problems go away, but it’s certainly an essential first step to responding to PR disasters. People want to know that companies genuinely regret their mistakes (and for the right reasons).

Own up for what the business has done, recompense the aggrieved parties, and take steps to remedy your errors. For example, offer to donate a substantial amount to the customer’s charity of choice; take action against the offending employee(s); and outline exactly what you’ll do to ensure that a similar incident never happens again.

Don’t ever try to cover anything up, downplay/dismiss the matter, or blame others for the business’s incompetence—as this will have the opposite effect of what you’ve intended and make the situation much, much worse. Remember that there’s little point in denying or changing even the smallest of facts, as the public can almost always sense deception. In any case, the truth has probably already been recorded on audio, captured on video, or documented in some other incriminating way! 

Most passengers may not have much choice when it comes to airlines, but chances are that they’ll have plenty of options when deciding on whether or not to purchase from your small business. So, remember the above when dealing with business matters, especially PR crises.

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