Public relations is something that anyone running a business should always keep top of mind. Case in point: A wonderful business trip I took to Puerto Rico last week was tarnished by a disastrous experience with American Airlines.
The problem occurred with my return flight: Apparently, the airline was having computer issues but failed to communicate these issues openly and honestly with those of us in Puerto Rico waiting to fly to Miami. As a result, I arrived home 12 hours late, exhausted and more than a little peeved about my customer experience.
Here are a few things that you can learn from my experience so that you don’t make the same mistakes when an unexpected crisis happens to your business. There are many steps to a thorough "crisis PR" plan, but here are a few you can work on today.
1. When you have a problem, keep the lines of communication open with everyone on your team.
In my own experience with American Airlines, it was obvious that there was no clear communication with everyone from HQ to Miami to Puerto Rico, where my flight originated. I had the opportunity to take an earlier flight from Puerto Rico to Miami, but was discouraged by the flight attendant, because that rebooking would “probably be too expensive.”
As I was on a limited college professor’s budget, I took her advice, but in hindsight, had she been fully informed about the computer glitch in Miami, I would think she would have been giving out different advice to her customers.
Lesson: As soon as you have a problem, make sure you have the communication channels operating and in place to extend up-to-date information to your employees as soon as possible.This is the only way that they can provide up-to-date and immediate information to customers.
2. Focus on how you can make this communication as painless for your customer as possible.
When my plane arrived in Miami, we sat on the tarmac for one hour, waiting for a gate to open up. At that point, we still had no idea how widespread the computer “glitch” was, and we quickly watched the time erode until the flight from Miami to my final destination, Raleigh-Durham, was scheduled to leave.
I then dashed out of the plane and ran through the terminal, only to find that the plane was still there, with the door closed. This meant that there would be no way for me (and the other five people with me) to get on to that flight. You have never seen such an angry mob. It was the last flight out for the evening and the airline could not even wait 10 minutes for us to arrive! It was clear to me that, given the lack of communication and customer focus that had transpired, I would have to cancel my next morning's classes.
Lesson: When you know that a crisis has occurred, even if it is beyond your control, you still have the ability to help your customers and make the consequences of your crisis as painless for them as possible.
3. Apologize if appropriate, and find ways to repair the relationship
By the time I made it to the rebooking counter, I was more than exasperated. The computer “glitch” had unwittingly caused havoc for me and I was left with no option except to spend the night in Miami, cancel two classes (and a few meetings) and hope that I had packed a few extra clean clothes to get me through one more day.There was no apology for what had happened; no acknowledgement of the inconvenience that the airline's technical issues had caused me. I was offered only the bare minimum: a hotel and meals until my flight the next morning.
Lesson: When you have a systemwide failure that interrupts the lives of your customers, you build more positive relationships if you acknowledge what happened, find ways to make it better, apologize for the inconvenience and ask how you can repair the relationship. Show that you are listening and that you care, and your customers will likely forgive any crisis.
As you can see from the following Twitter exchange I had with American Airlines, none of this happened. This is a very inauthentic response. American Airlines will have an uphill battle rebuilding trust with me and everyone else who got bumped that rather unpleasant night.