American Airlines and Peter Chang: Two Cases Of How Employees Can Tarnish A Company’s Reputation

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In the late 1990s, I was booked on a British Airways flight from London, England to Johannesburg, South Africa. Before I could check in the airline suddenly cancelled it without warning. I’ll spare you the details: suffice it to say that British Airways handled the issue very poorly. One employee even pointed to the call boxes and suggested I inform the media about how poorly the situation was managed. After a frustrating, uncomfortable night trying to sleep in the airport with my fellow passengers, I was hell bent on ensuring British Airways would not be let off the hook for such deplorable customer treatment. To a full flight of passengers, the airline had damaged its reputation.

In those days there was no social media to rant on, and blogs were not yet in force, so I resorted to snail mail to let the BA team know how incensed I was. The incident was sorted out to my liking, and I received a full refund for my ticket and a free return flight between the same two cities.

Even so, it took me many years to reengage with the BA brand. In fact, that early experience still casts a shadow over my perception of their brand despite the fact that I receive excellent customer service every time I travel with them.

Employees, we are told, are a company’s greatest asset; indeed, they are on the front lines during a mishap. The manner in which they handle both major and minor disruptions in service can influence customer perception for years to come. When difficult issues arise, an employee who goes beyond the call of duty and delivers exceptional service becomes a public relations catalyst, adding a massive amount of value to the company’s reputation by providing intelligent, earnest attention right when it is most needed. Conversely, an employee who delivers shoddy service and/or a poor attitude when mistakes are made can damage a brand irrevocably and become a business and reputational liability.

Consider the following 10 customer service statistics from InsightSquared:

  1. 66% of customers switch companies due to poor service (Accenture).
  2. 40%of customers purchase from a competitor because of their reputation for great customer service (Zendesk).
  3. 44%of U.S. consumers switch to a competitor following a poor customer service experience (NewVoice).
  4. 82% of consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of bad customer service (Zendesk).
  5. 58%are willing to spend more on companies that provide excellent customer service (American Express).
  6. 95% of customers share bad experiences with others (Zendesk).
  7. 54% of customers share bad experiences with 5+ people (Zendesk).
  8. 48% of people who had negative experiences told 10+ people about it (Harvard Business Review).
  9. 45% of customers share negative reviews on social media (Zendesk).
  10. 63% of consumers read negative reviews on social media (Zendesk).

Note that while consumers can choose to switch brands after a poor experience, some become increasingly vocal when sharing their frustration and turn to social media platforms for amplification, thus spreading the damage even further (points 9 and 10 above).

American Airlines

The case of international business executive and company CEO Dave Carruthers and his less than stellar experience with American Airlines illustrates the impact of customer service on individual satisfaction and overall reputation. Carruthers, who has flown 250,000 miles over the last year, shared his horrendous treatment by the airline on both LinkedIn and YouTube. According to his online posts, in the span of seven days American Airlines allegedly took the following actions:

  • Cancelled his flight out of Birmingham, England. Carruthers had to travel down to London to get a flight out to New York for business meetings at an additional cost of almost £1,500.00.
  • Refused to refund the total amount of his additional expenses. (In a video update, he reports that American Airlines has agreed to reimburse him for half of the money spent.)
  • Lost his bag for five days, forcing him to purchase new clothes in New York.
  • Refused to change his flight back to the United Kingdom (his point of origin), as he hadn’t travelled out with them because he had to find an alternative way to get to New York.
  • Made him pay extra for a second bag for his return flight to the UK. The second bag was purchased because American Airlines lost his bag en route to NY.

At the time of this article, May 26, 2016, Carruthers had received 1182 comments and 3881 likes on LinkedIn. His first YouTube post received 418,696 views (only 153 were given “thumbs down”); his update received 112,313 views (with 67 “thumbs down”).

Now let’s do the math. Each person commenting and liking the post has a personal network. Multiply the likes and views by each individual’s connections and you will see how a spur-of-the-moment customer care rant can quickly go viral and grow exponentially. The severity of the issue can also intensify because if a number of people are connected and make comments or likes, then the same post appears in everyone’s feed a number of times during the lifecycle of that feed. In short, what was once an isolated incident is now a widespread, often heated, discussion about a company’s reputation.

Carruthers reported that he only got a response from American Airlines after his videos were posted, and that the airline asked him “to send the receipts for extra flights and additional costs incurred.” He reports that they “…are investigating what happened and are coming back to me. In the interest of fairness the lady from this department has been extremely helpful, apologetic and courteous. Just a real shame it needed this level of social traction and a direct email to the CMO to be treated like a real person.” American Airlines also interacted with Dave on Twitter to sort out the mess–but again, only after his online rant made waves.

Peter Chang

On Saturday night, May 7, 2016, at a Peter Chang restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, four diners placed orders for Sichuan-styled Chinese food. The server brought out a “family style” bowl of rice. One of the diners asked the server why the rice was served family style as opposed to in individual bowls as he had become accustomed to in Beijing. The server then asked the diners if they would prefer the rice in individual bowls, and they declined.

Clearly the server was irritated, because when the diners finished their meal and received the bill, they found two “comments” at the bottom of the check.

  1. “im a plad a——.” (The misspelled ‘plad’ was a reference to the plaid clothing three of the guests were wearing.)
  2. “i have a small penis.”

The manager was summoned and shown the bill. The server was called to the table, along with a second server who allegedly inserted the comments into the restaurant’s point of sale system. The manager apologized and explained that “…the servers were just joking with one another via the POS system. They meant to delete the comments before presenting the check.”

The dinner guests reported that the servers seemed more embarrassed about being caught than truly sorry for what they had done. Moreover, the manager’s “apology” added insult to injury; instead of expressing sincere regret, he explained that the servers were “just joking” and that “they meant to delete the comments before presenting the check.”

Then it got even worse. On the Monday morning after the incident, the manager said that “…the servers had previously been warned about leaving offensive comments in the system. They always do that. I’ve told them so many times. And they did it again.”

By Tuesday, May 10, 2016 Peter Chang issued an apologetic statement. This included the following actions:

  1. Firing the servers involved, terminating the duty manager and the manager of the restaurant (Chang’s own daughter).
  2. Hiring a professional management company to improve the management of his restaurants and provide quality services to the guests.
  3. Enhancing the food quality monitoring system of the restaurants.

What can we learn from these stories? Both cases point to ten key strategies companies and their employees can apply to reduce the risk of reputational brand damage and enhance positive public relations in the long term:

  1. Develop and enact a customer relationship management strategy and plan that is integrated into the company’s overall public relations plan.
  2. Let go of the notion that public relations are already “handled” by outside forces such as consultants, media coverage, social media, content marketing, etc. Every employee is responsible for building and maintaining good public relations via direct interaction with individual customers, partners, suppliers and contractors.
  3. Train frontline customer-facing employees that their listening skills, actions, attitudes, message communication, and message delivery will directly impact the customer’s reactions and actions either positively or negatively.
  4. Train staff to put their prejudices aside and focus on the customer experience. Ensure that their biases and opinions do not carry over into their interaction with and treatment of a client.
  5. Make sure employees are acutely aware that there is a better than average chance that their interactions with customers could be recorded and possibly widely disseminated on social media by an aggrieved customer.
  6. Have necessary escalation procedures in place so that if the customer agent, manager or wait staff recognizes that attempts at issue resolution are ineffective, a senior manager can be brought in to take over the resolution of the issue. Should a customer request that their issue is escalated to a manager, the employee interacting with the client must action this request as seamlessly and quickly as possible.
  7. Ensure that a customer’s issues or gripes can be sorted out as soon as they engage with a brand representative. Speed and accuracy are critical to reducing the risk of a social media rant. Keeping aggrieved customers waiting and/or not keeping them updated if resolution is expected to take some time can push frustration levels into overdrive.
  8. Accept responsibility, sympathize, and apologize if the company/brand made an error. This is a simple and powerful way to defuse the situation. Be sure to compensate the customer accordingly with a refund, upgrade, free meal, flowers–whatever it takes!
  9. When an angry customer rants online, communicate with him or her immediately with two objectives in mind: speedy resolution and taking the communication offline to a telephone conversation or email communication. Both strategies come with risks. Telephone calls can be recorded and posted online and email conversations can also be forwarded or posted online. Irrespective, resolve the issue quickly and ensure nothing in your communication could backfire. Then, situational dependent, circle back to an online platform to communicate successful resolution of the issue. In many circumstances the customer will want to post about the resolution, and employees should not discourage this action; in fact, self-reporting of satisfaction can be an ideal way to bring the story to a close.
  10. Follow up with the customer after the event has been fully resolved–and apologize once more.

Employees are human, and humans make mistakes. What counts in the long run is how those mistakes are cleaned up and resolved. Prompt action and genuine empathy are essential. The right words and actions can save the day–and the wrong ones can engender a public relations nightmare. Working ahead of time to develop and implement optimal employee training, plans, policies, and procedures for addressing unforeseen issues is a key strategy to build effective and enduring relationships with customers.


Based in Syracuse, N.Y., Fortress Strategic Communications provides specialized strategic public relations and crisis communications consulting to companies that offer products, services, and solutions designed to manage and mitigate all types of risk. The company is able to draw on a combined 20 years of global experience from its executives in a wide array of vertical markets. For more information please visit:



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