Crisis Communications: Stopping a misunderstood customer service experience from going viral

While giving the full explanation each time may not fully prevent customer service issues from going viral and it may make things worse if it frustrates the customer, it can prevent others who are overhearing the conversation from making up their own story and creating a viral crisis via social media.

A photo of empty seats on a Southwest Airlines airplane
“Southwest Airlines” by Kevin Dooley, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Recently, a friend gave me a copy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association’s (AOPA) Flight Training magazine to read an article subtitled Who really suffers after an airline incident goes viral.

The article highlights a couple of recent airline customer service experiences, such as a man being dragged-off a United Airlines flight, and how could have been solved in more productive ways. It also argues that, had the whole story of some of these recent incidences been what the public saw, the court of public judgement may have judged the incidences differently.

The latter point is what interested me, as it emphasizes one of the most fundamental principles of crisis communication: If you don’t give people the whole story, they will make up the information they are missing.

And it gives us a way to potentially solve the issue. Customer service representatives need to make sure that EVERY time they discuss they issue, they give the full story and preferably in every sentence. 

In the case of two teenage girls not able to board a United flight because they were wearing leggings, the reason was that they were using “buddy passes” which have strict dress codes. While I wasn’t there and can only surmise what happened, I’m guessing the gate agent, who was probably in a rush, probably said something like “Sorry, you two are’t properly dressed to board this flight” when the Shannon Watts (the woman who complained about it on twitter) overheard. What’s missing from the above version? The full story about them being on buddy passes.

What would it look like to explain the full story in this situation?

Gate agent: You are traveling on a free buddy ticket and your outfit does not meet the dress code for using a free buddy ticket.

Ladies: What?

Gate agent: You are traveling on a free buddy ticket and your outfit does not meet the dress code for using a free buddy ticket. Do you have something else you can change into that meets the dress code for using a free buddy ticket?

Ladies: We didn’t know that. What’s the dress code?

Gate agent: Here is the dress code for using a free buddy ticket. Do you have something else you can change into that meets the dress code for using a free buddy ticket?

But this is hard, gets redundant and takes time in a stressful situation, so people start taking shortcuts.

Gate agent: You don’t meet the dress code, is there something else you can change into?

Reading the above, you can see how, if someone just heard this statement, they could start making-up the rest of the story.

While giving the full explanation each time may not fully prevent customer service issues from going viral and it may make things worse if it frustrates the customer (more trial of this is needed to understand and refine), it can prevent others who are overhearing the conversation from making up their own story and creating a viral crisis via social media.

And when you find yourself on the flip side and the person who overhears, PLEASE take a minute to find out the rest of the story before you pass judgement. I know, easier said than done, and I mess this up all the time, but the more we do this, the less issues we will all have.



Crisis communications: Think about your competition

A group of bikers riding in a bike race
Just as athletes have to plan for their own or a competitor’s mistake, we also need to consider our competition in crisis communications

In crisis communications, we’re trained to think about all of our stakeholders including customers, employees, partners, etc. But we need to also think about and react to how our competitors will respond our crisis. How will they respond? How will they try to gain market share or serve their purposes during and after a crisis?

And how will we respond if our competitors have a crisis? Should we react (public comment, changing production amounts, etc.)? Will we need to change our messaging during that time? Could their crisis spread to us?

We need to consider our competition before, during, and after a crisis.

Suggested reading:

Crisis Communications: A tale of marijuana and two U.S. Presidents

The one thing companies are still doing wrong in crisis communications

One thing missing from crisis communications advice: Resume community relations as fast as you can

Prevent a PR crisis: Explain why upfront

Dear company representatives, stop commenting on controversial issues!

Photo: “Philadelphia Bike Race – flying off Lemon Hill” by joiseyshowaa, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Crisis Communications: A Tale of Marijuana and Two U.S. Presidents


Two United States of America Presidents have admitted to using marijuana in the past, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And yet, one is the brunt of continuous jokes and one is not. In fact, many people today have forgotten that President Obama admitted to drug use, even as marijuana legalization is occurring across the U.S.

How is that possible? The answer lies in HOW they admitted to it. I’ve written before about how important it is, in crisis communications, to be upfront and to be the one that tells the story. President Clinton admitted to using marijuana, but then minimized his admission by saying “[I] didn’t inhale.” Twelve years later, people still use the line “I didn’t inhale” as a joke.

President Obama, on the other hand, made no such caveats to his admission. And, when asked if he has used marijuana he gave an honest and clever answer, “I inhaled frequently, as a kid. That was the point.” Since then, very little has been said about President Obama’s marijuana use. The reason? He owned it, he told the story, and he answered honestly without any caveats.

When working on a crisis communications plan or responding to a crisis, be ready to be clear, be upfront, and don’t caveat your answers.  This one technique will greatly reduce the length of your crisis.


The one thing companies are still doing wrong in crisis communications

“Let’s wait to put something out until we can get the message JUST RIGHT” used to be the old adage for handing crisis communications. And, back when that was the expert advice, it was good advice.


Today, it is still wise to think heavily about the message you are putting out there, but the timing of communications has changed what is a reasonable time to wait before responding to a crisis.


Because the news cycle and rumor mill was slower, we had time to gather a group and brainstorm for hours about the perfect message, we had time to consult with our legal counsel, and we had time to craft the story our way. The problem is, with the new age of rapid information, we’ve lost that time.


So what do we do? What hasn’t changed is that it’s important to get out in front of the story, to be the one to tell the story. So we must be willing and ready to just that, respond within minutes and, at the same time, be unapologetic about not having all the information people want right away.


School shooting communication as a model

We see this often with messaging for school shootings. We see messages that say things like:


  • Shots fired on campus. Shelter in place and await further instructions.
  • We can confirm that there was one shooter but we cannot confirm the shooter’s identity at this time.
  • An ALL CLEAR has been announced at campus. Please resume normal campus activities. Further details on the emergency will be announced at a later time.


So, information is disseminated, but not unknown or touchy information. That you can take time seek counsel on. One of my most-used lines in crisis communications I learned from watching Donald Grady, the Police Chief at Northern Illinois University, during their 2008 school shooting post-press conference. Whenever someone asked him a question he wasn’t ready to answer, he would simply say something like, “I’m not prepared to answer that question at this time. Next question.”


Bringing crisis communications advice into the business/organization world

We can use similar crisis communications strategies in the business world. For example, if a CEO unexpectedly resigns, the company should be prepared to respond immediately. Waiting three days to craft the perfect announcement is public relations suicide. By then, employees have come up with their own version of the story and leaked it to the press/community and the former CEO has probably published his or her version of the story as well.

Crafting the perfect message is ideal, but step one should always be to get out in front of the message. Then, by all means, work on crafting the perfect response.

One thing missing from most crisis communications advice: Resume community relations as fast as you can

There is a lot of great crisis communications advice available, so I won’t reiterate any of that information here, but I’ve noticed that there is one thing that is relevant to a lot of industries that typically isn’t emphasized in crisis communications:

After the event, you must be visible in the community again as fast as possible

The natural instinct after a crisis is to skip the community meetings you regularly go to because, well, you are busy dealing with the aftermath of the crisis. While that is understandable, I don’t believe that is the right approach.

An Army officer uses a microphone to speak. There are Rotary banners in the background. There is a woman and a man listening to his right.
It is amazing what a difference showing up to your Rotary Club meeting after a crisis can make when minimizing a crisis situation.

Obviously, if you really are in the middle of the crisis, you can’t go. But, when the immediate threat is over, it’s important to get back to your regular community relations as fast as you can. Why do I think this is the best approach? Two reasons:

  1. You being there signals that everything is under control. After a crisis, people will be looking for you at your regular community meetings. If you aren’t there, people are going to naturally assume that you are still dealing with the crisis, which signals to them that it’s not necessarily over with.
  2. You want them to come to you to answer their questions. Following classic cognitive dissonance theory, people will seek to understand the crisis situation. Where there is a lack of information, they will look for the information and/or make assumptions to fill in the voids.  It is my opinion that this is how a lot of false information is started. Instead, you want to be where the community influencers are, encourage them to ask you questions, and then answer them as honestly and openly as you can. That should minimize any long-term pr and community relations damage, especially when it comes to false rumors.

I know dealing with a crisis is not fun, but as soon as you can, dust yourself off and get right back to your community meetings. It will do you a lot of good in the long run.

Sacrificing accuracy for speed in the news media and online


I’m sure there will be a lot of lessons out of the Asiana Airlines crash. One of those lessons/reminders for public information professionals should be that we should definitely try to be fast with our information, but not so fast that we publish incorrect information.

As you can see in the video above,  KTVU-TV out of Oakland, California, announced the names of the crew on the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed. The problem? The names were incorrect and offensive. To be fair, someone at KTVU did check with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), but, according the NTSB’s public apology, “a summer intern acted outside the scope of his authority when he erroneously confirmed the names of the flight crew on the aircraft.”

News media as well as public relations professionals and other public information officers are under tremendous pressure to deliver news and public information fast. But time and time again we are seeing stories of how moving so fast and not checking accuracy can do some real harm, especially in the age of Internet sharing including social media.

The Asiana Airlines KTVU-TV reporting incident is a good reminder to us all: Check your information and then double-check your information prior to releasing it.

Public relations is a stressful job

A coffee mug that says I heart PR on a desk
Photo from Flickr: Jerry Silfwer


“The good news is, your work is out there for everyone to see, the bad news is, you work is out there for everyone to see,” is a line that is in all of my career day presentations that I give.

So, it’s not surprising to me that Career Cast’s Most Stressful Jobs of 2013 has public relations executive listed as the 5th most stressful job. Whether you are in marketing, public relations, or a combination of both (like me), it can be a very stressful job for the following reasons:

  1. As I mentioned before, your work is out there for everyone to see. Which means, if you mess up, everyone is going to know…and comment on it. 
  2. Many think that sales or whatever your financial outcome is, is the sole responsibility of the marketing and public relations department(s). In reality,marketing and public relations are only one of many things that affect those numbers. It’s usually a wide variety of things (see 5 things that are killing your marketing effectiveness and your business’ reputation for examples).
  3. People think they fully understand public relations and marketing.  I have a former boss that used to say that the two jobs everyone thinks they could do better are marketing/public relations and technology. I welcome all ideas, but I also welcome people allowing me the opportunity to explain all of the strategy, thought, and research that went behind the decisions I make. Often, they are surprised at the amount of work and time it takes to come to what seems like a simple decision.
  4. Public relations is a very difficult thing to quantify. For examples of why that is that could also pertain to public relations, see Addressing the Question: Measuring Advertising ROI.
  5. There are no right answers and every situation is unique in some way. It’s more of an art, which means it’s difficult to know that you are doing the right thing. It’s definitely a “trail and error” type of learning situation.
  6. A public relations professional’s day can go from good to bad in a single moment with the introduction of a crisis situation.

Fellow PR and marketing folks, what else am I missing?