Passenger transport companies face unique public relations and crisis communication challenges.
Whether operators of commuter trains, cruise ships or airlines, the deliberate action or negligent inaction of an individual can take scores of lives, cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and permanently scar the reputation of businesses.
So it was with interest I read the recent research findings from Exponential, outlined in "Airline disasters: How data insights can help shape the PR response", particularly as they related to the importance of brand.
Exponential’s Bryan Melmed found the strength of a brand pre-disaster will impact on the survivability of a brand post disaster, but suggested the emphasis on the immediate PR response is over-stated, and the presence of a logo at the crash site is "one of the most important factors relating to cognitive and financial impacts".
As a public relations executive experienced working with transport companies, including airlines, and a former journalist, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr Melmed on the importance of a strong brand, but disagree regarding the post-disaster response.
Brand = culture = disaster response
The suggestion that an airline’s pre-disaster brand is more important than the quality of its post-disaster response ignores the fact the two are inextricably linked.
An airline’s brand is the public face of its internal culture, made up of every facet of its operation from the friendliness of its customer service through to the priority it places on safe operations against short-term cost savings.
Far from the emphasis on an immediate PR response being overstated, a company’s response to the most damaging of crises is the very essence of its culture and brand. Being responsive, open and authentic in communications to loved ones, customers and other stakeholders isn’t a strategy, it is a demonstration of core values.
In a disaster, the logo is the least of your problems
When a crisis strikes, our responsibility as public relations professionals is to help businesses and their leaders demonstrate their core values, through words and actions.
Efforts to decouple your logo from an accident is a misuse of resources.
In effect it would require despatching contractors or employees, paint rollers in hand, to ‘Wite-Out’ your logo, or banning backdrops from your press conference, all the while television stations are running 24/7 coverage overlaid with graphics, logos and footage from the scene.
It’s a futile effort and, as Thai Airways discovered, can create its own additional reputational damage.
There is no such thing as a "non-branded" disaster for any business, least of all airlines.
Aviation accidents are iconic, with flight numbers and locations entering our language as shorthand for tragedy; Tenerife, Mt Erebus, MH17, TWA800.
The name of the Scottish town Lockerbie, has become synonymous with an act of terrorism. It is the tragedy itself, not the presence of a logo, which ensures people the world over will never forget.
Speed and the authenticity of response is key
No matter the business, your priority as a PR professional in a crisis is to respond with speed and authenticity.
No matter the business, the importance of preparation and practice cannot be overstated.
Your crisis communications response needs to be fully documented and provide clear delegated authority to respond swiftly, even before all of the facts are known.
For airlines, previous best practice was to issue a statement to mainstream media within an hour of an incident occurring. Now the International Air Transport Association expects airlines to issue a social media statement within 15 minutes.
While airlines are at risk of the most visible and damaging crises, every business faces risk each day.
Are you prepared?