What American Airlines’ crisis response can teach brand managers

The airline recently encountered a reputational nightmare after video of a flight attendant went viral. However, it’s faring better than United. Here’s why.

American Airlines seems to have learned—largely from United Airlines’ recent tone-deaf response—what not to do in a crisis.

On Friday, American Airlines passenger Surain Adyanthaya posted a video to Facebook of another passenger, who was carrying her baby and crying at the front of the plane.

“AA Flight attendant violently took a stroller from a lady with her baby on my flight, hitting her and just missing the baby,” Adyanthaya wrote.

NPR reported:

… [T]he recording does not capture the alleged stroller incident and begins instead with a woman holding a baby and sobbing.

An unidentified male passenger then appears to come to her defense saying, “What’s the guy’s name that did that with the stroller?” An employee comes into the frame and the male passenger says, “You do that to me and I’ll knock you flat.” The two men approach each other, fingers jabbing. The employee repeats, “Hit me,” and the passenger says, “I’ll knock you out.” The captain pulls the employee away.

However, the airline’s response stood in stark contrast to United’s initial response to its crisis, the latter having drawn further backlash as many criticized its chief executive’s corporate apology.

American Airlines swiftly responded with a statement, explaining that it had upgraded the passenger and her family to first class on another flight and had suspended the flight attendant:

We have seen the video and have already started an investigation to obtain the facts. What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident. We are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care. After electing to take another flight, we are taking special care of her and her family and upgrading them to first class for the remainder of their international trip.

The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.

The recent incident prompted United—as well as Delta and American Airlines—to change overbooking and crew policies, but it wasn’t the only negative incident to happen on United last week. There were troubling occurrences on other airlines, as well.

Forbes contributor Bruce Y. Lee wrote:

These aren’t isolated incidents but part of four growing trends: worsening flight conditions on U.S.-based airlines, increasing anger and violence, passengers carrying smartphones, and sharing on social media. Combine these trends and expect more and more disturbing airline videos to emerge and go viral. Who knows? Maybe airline videos will start rivaling cat videos on the Internet.

There are a few lessons that brand managers working for airlines—along with any PR or marketing pro looking to improve relationships—can learn from American Airlines’ response and similar crises.

Consider these approaches:

1. Educate employees on proper customer service policies and organizational values.

As the climate for airlines (and other customer-service industries) worsens, PR pros must help staff assimilate the organization’s values so they can properly respond in tough situations—whether it’s an overbooked flight, or an irate customer screaming at a cashier.

Reuters reported:

Bob Ross, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants union, which represents American Airlines workers, said in a statement that tight schedules, overcrowded planes, shrinking seats and limited overhead bin space have made it difficult for flight attendants to board passengers.

“All of these factors are related to corporate decisions beyond the control of passengers and flight attendants,” Ross said.

The New York Times reported:

The American Airlines episode began when the plane was at the gate in San Francisco before a scheduled 1 p.m. departure to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. It occurred in the area between the cockpit and the first-class seating section. Strollers are not permitted in airplane cabins, an airline spokeswoman said.

“He jerked it away from her and almost hit the baby in the head,” Olivia Morgan, the passenger who saw the episode unfold, said in a telephone interview.

Lee wrote:

Add to this mix, the increase in anger, hate, confrontations, and violence that seems to be occurring in the U.S. recently in general. … NBC News reported on how hate crimes in the U.S. increased by 20 percent in 2016 and that this was fueled by the Presidential election. Alexis Okeowo also warned in The New Yorker about “hate on the rise.” Airlines need to beware that airplanes can be an additional catalyst or release point for brewing anger.

Help your employees to slow or stop these altercations, instead of sparking or accelerating them. Your employees are the best storytelling sources in your organization, but that can quickly turn against you when they become the villain of the tale.

2. Train everyone at your organization to be media ready.

Though employee training is a human resources function, practically every customer has a smartphone in his or her pocket and access to social media platforms. That means within seconds, employees and their actions can be catapulted to virality—and face a social media mob.

It’s no longer just your organization’s executives that should receive media training, but anyone who regularly encounters customers.

Your employees don’t have to be prepared to conduct a press conference, but they should know how to respond (or not respond) to angry customers and other issues that might arise, such as a stroller that shouldn’t be in the main cabin or a flight crew that must get on a fully booked flight.

This can help build trust and loyalty with your customers, as well as minimalize sensational scenes that can quickly make the rounds online.

3. Focus on reputation management.

The adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies to PR crises.

Communicators must get in front of a reputational disaster and guide the narrative, both through their statements and their actions (including explaining a plan for how they will fix the problem). Otherwise, they risk having the story get away from them, as in the case of United. Once journalists—and social media users—set the stage, it will be an uphill battle to stem negative perception and backlash.

These crises might be short lived in headlines, but they can wreak havoc on your reputation online long after your PR team has completed its cleanup, requiring additional time and resources to keep negative stories and reviews from coming up as top results on search engines.

ReputationDefender reported that 92 percent of consumers said uncovering something negative through an online search would affect their perception, and 82 percent of consumers said they trust search engine’s first-page ranking results.

The best way to avoid this headache is to have a working crisis communications plan in place, regularly monitor social media conversations and be prepared to respond quickly to incidents that might threaten your organization’s image.

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