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Crisis Communications - Attention Please

Expertise in social media engagement must become a cornerstone of crisis communication strategies

Crisis communications is a high stakes game. In parlous circumstances, the integrity of a brand can be won or lost on the choice of a word or the timing of an announcement.

According to Oxford Metrica, over the next five years 83% of companies will endure some form of crisis that will see their share price drop 20-30%.

BP’s share price fell more than 50% after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010. Then CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, initially played down the extent of the damage—comments that came back to haunt him as the crisis intensified. Experts estimate that, at its worse, more than 50,000 barrels of oil were spilling into the sea each day, creating a slick of about 2,500 square miles in area.

It took seven days for BP to engage properly in social media activities, suggesting not only that the company didn’t care but also that it wasn’t completely comfortable with the latest technology. BP then began to tweet a dozen or more times a day, updates that were criticized for being simple broadcasts rather than engagement in a two-way conversation. Agonizingly for BP, a parody Twitter account attracted ten times as many followers as the official BP account.

But what BP lacked in refinement was compensated for by its increasing use of social media channels. Updates on Facebook and photos of the cleanup on Flickr helped BP’s communication efforts and the transparency restored some faith in the brand.

A spark of inspiration

Other companies have undergone similarly sharp learning curves about social media. Apple has been under a lot of pressure for its slow response times during product crises, such as the poor antenna reception experienced by some iPhones. It has repeatedly stressed that its emphasis is on getting the response right. Sony, too, faced a public dressing-down for its failure to deal quickly enough with a security breach in its Playstation network. Strangely, these cutting-edge companies have been reluctant to use the channels their products have fostered.

Airlines’ experiences with social media have been similarly mixed. United Airlines eventually dealt with the YouTube chart-topping story of a broken guitar, and Delta’s Twitter account resolved a problem concerning an elderly gentleman placed on a standby list.

A defining moment, however, came in November 2010. Qantas flight QF32 took off from Singapore en route to Sydney. Four minutes after take-off, one of the Rolls-Royce engines suffered an uncontained failure, shutting down the engine and damaging the wing. The explosion was heard on the ground in Indonesia and within 45 minutes the first tweets were speculating about an accident at Batam airport.

Wreckage from the explosion was recovered and photos were soon posted online, clearly displaying the Qantas logo. Less than 90 minutes after the incident occurred, Reuters carried a story claiming that Qantas had confirmed an A380 crash near Singapore. Some 15 minutes later it revised its story as the aircraft—having followed all the necessary procedures, such as a fuel dump—safely touched back down at Singapore Changi Airport.

“Even while the aircraft was still airborne, people were putting two and two together and coming up with 22,” says John Bailey, Managing Director of the specialist communications consultancy ICON International. “The fact that the A380 was new and an iconic aircraft pushed the story to the top of the conventional news channels. But journalists didn’t have the time to check their sources properly and the story got carried along on waves of misinformation.”

The critical point is that Qantas had lost control of the story. On paper, little was wrong with the carrier’s response. Its first formal statement was made only 20 minutes after the aircraft landed, two hours after the engine exploded. But by then it was already too late.

Alan Joyce, Qantas CEO, explains: “We were ready for traditional media and we had a press conference by 4 o’clock that afternoon, which I fronted. And we had our press statement out within half an hour of us knowing the issue. But we’d missed this whole [social media] end of communication.”

Fresh thinking

IATA is responding to the new challenges in crisis communications by working on a best practice document that will provide food for thought for all the partners, including airlines, airports, manufacturers, air navigation service providers and investigation bodies.

The guidance material will look at the impact of social media on crisis situations, particularly the speed at which news travels. It will also identify the roles each partner should play if an incident happens.

The project was inspired by the Qantas A380 incident. The role that social media played made it obvious that there was a need for something that incorporated these new communication channels. “Citizen journalists using Twitter and other online channels led the conventional media coverage to an extent that hadn’t been seen before,” says Bailey. “What was really amazing was that the online frenzy started before the aircraft had even landed. It was clear that this was a watershed moment in terms of how airlines approach crisis communications.”

Lessons to learn

A few commonsense lessons will underpin the detailed expertise in the guidance material. “You should only try to control what you can control,” says Bailey. “And don’t create a social media strategy during a crisis. Social media policy needs to be discussed now in case of a crisis in the future.” 

Basic communication skills still apply to social media—who do you want to talk to and what do you want to tell them? Airlines need to be specific about their requirements, however, because it isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy. Airlines must also be aware of what social media channels they are already using. A clear policy needs to keep all offices and employees aligned.

“You can’t be everything to everybody,” Bailey continues. “The channels are new but the principles of communication are not. Just make sure social media is part of the overall communications strategy.”
A collaborative approach is needed to ensure a consistent response. Each partner has to be aware that they are affecting the whole industry and the value chain, not only themselves. What was said about Qantas affected other operators of Rolls-Royce powered A380s, such as Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines.

Ultimately, social media is simply another communications channel. The need is to demystify it, to make it an integral part of communications policy.

 

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