British Airways recently included an image of a fake boarding pass for Osama Bin Laden in an issue of LHR News, its employee magazine for London's Heathrow Airport. The image was in reference to an article about the airline's new boarding pass system for mobile phones – and it caught global media attention.
Not only was the boarding pass – shown as a small image on an iPhone – on the cover, but it also had Bin Laden's final destination listed as Washington, DC. And in case you were wondering, Bin Laden is a British Airways frequent flier and it looks like he flies first class.
Many assumed it was a prank or something related to the labor dispute happening at the airline. Others lamented the fact that it just isn't funny to joke about terrorists. On a serious note, UK politician Patrick Mercer brought up the security implications with the Daily Mail: “It does focus the mind on how much easier our enemies might find it to get a legitimate boarding pass under a system using mobile phones.”
British Airways apologized, saying “a mistake has been made,” but has kept mum on what exactly happened and how Bin Laden became a frequent flier for the airline.
Anything Bin Laden-related is not really a joking matter, so using just about anyone else in the world would have been better. Though some websites have had some fun picking what names would have been worse (ahem, Hitler).
The situation highlights the fact that anything published in connection with your company or brand can, and most likely will, be put online and critiqued by the masses. The “for employees only” concept doesn't exist anymore and every potential controversial decision should be looked at through the “what if this gets out?” lens.
PR and corporate communications should be synchronized with the employee communications department to the point where it is able to anticipate any possible problems with the content it releases.
Let's hope this doesn't turn October 26, 2010 – the date written on the boarding pass – into a high-threat travel day.
Rating: 1 (Clueless)