I am writing this from my in-laws' house in England, where my family and I have been watching a spewing volcano on TV and hitting the redial button to British Airways customer service. By the time you read this, we will hopefully be home.
Take any communications topic, from public affairs to employee comms to advertising, and there's a lesson in this crisis. For example, did the many and various European airlines really think it was a good idea to keep running their TV advertising when their planes were stubbornly grounded?
What this crisis ultimately boiled down to was finding trusted sources of information.
I was surprised to find that social media was virtually useless to me in either finding accurate details or strategies for coping with a situation that, at times, seemed like it might go on for weeks.
Yes, I had an empathetic Twitter interaction with David Brain, Edelman's European president and CEO, who was stranded with his family in Asia. And Chris Lewis, CEO of Lewis PR, kindly tweeted an offer of help, while friends reached out via Facebook.
But either I lack the network to access the kind of details I was looking for, or it wasn't available to me.
Given that, you might think that traditional media would, by default, be my most prized source of information. Again, no. Hard news was hard to find, amid the footage of would-be passengers sleeping on airport floors and sob stories of people who were truly desperate to reach their destinations.
When you are actually impacted by an issue like this, you don't care about other people's anecdotes, but traditional media must cater to the whole community.
In these situations, it is clear that the most important source of information, outside of the relevant government bodies, must be the corporation. So far, British Airways has done pretty well, keeping us up-to-date with timely and clear information. Most of the phone reps have gone out of their way to give advice and encouragement.
BA has not been perfect. This unforeseen crisis bumped up against its recent labor issue, and the website at times directs to strike information. The proper resources should have been directed to getting the site oriented to the correct crisis.
Also, early on it seems the company might have retained some help from outside or less experienced phone staff, as a clearly muddled individual managed to do more harm than good in one interaction.
PR teams are not always ingrained in the minutiae of customer service. However, the PR team's engagement in business operations and particularly in building and sustaining stakeholder trust are essential to its ultimate success. Unless that sensibility is embraced by the company's top management, it is doomed.
More convincing than all the customer service in the world was witnessing BA's leadership making a personal investment in the crisis. When the company ran a test flight through the volcanic ash, CEO Willie Walsh was one of the five passengers on board. Walsh clearly knows his business depends on trust. And the only way to truly sustain it is to take the same risks you expect your crews and passengers to take.