Customers are negatively impacted by events beyond their control on a daily basis. But a simple annoyance can become a grueling ordeal when compounding factors such as poor communication exacerbate the problem. One of the worst possible scenarios? You’re an airline passenger on a tight schedule, under pressure to reach your destination, and at the last minute your flight is cancelled. You are stuck in an airport. Bad enough! But then you receive little or no information or help.
Similarly, nothing is worse for a company that provides an essential service and is well prepared for critical events, than when backup plans and systems fail. Employees are left facing angry customers all over the world, a social media firestorm, and news reporters hungry for a juicy story.
Background: What went wrong?
On Saturday, May 27, 2017, British Airways (BA) suffered a major computer failure. A 30-year-old power system, designed to be “fail safe,” crashed–and then was not switched back on correctly. Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA owner International Airlines Group, said that the airline’s uninterruptible power source (UPS) protecting one of its two Heathrow data centers failed, despite the fact that it should have continued to work during power cuts, power surges, and even natural disasters.
BA had alternative power sources. But batteries and a diesel generator, located at Boadicea House, the site of the failure, also appear to have failed. In addition, according to media reports, “BA’s emergency procedures say that the power would then be restored ‘gradually’ with its other data centre at Heathrow, located in Comet House, taking ‘up the slack.’”
However, what the emergency procedures dictated and what actually happened are two different things. It appears that when power was restored it was “‘resumed in an uncontrolled fashion, damaging servers containing all sorts of data about flights, passengers and even flight paths.”
A spokesperson reported, “There was a loss of power to the UK data centre which was compounded by the uncontrolled return of power which caused a power surge taking out our IT systems. So we know what happened, we just need to find out why.”
According to BA, the IT system collapse came after servers were damaged by the power problem. However, to add insult to injury, Reuters quoted “experts” who “questioned how a power surge in one location could knock out both a main IT system and a back-up system.” Reuters also referenced a BA competitor, Ryanair, who said it has “IT systems in three different locations to minimize the risks of a similar outage.”
And then, on the 6th of June, while at the International Air Transport Association global summit in Mexico, Willie Walsh, chief executive of BA owner International Airlines Group, elaborated, “The actions of an engineer who disconnected and then reconnected a power supply to the data centre may be central to a newly-ordered independent investigation.” He described the engineer’s actions as “uncontrolled and uncommanded,” adding, “You could cause a mistake to disconnect the power, it’s difficult for me to understand how you can mistakenly reconnect the power.”
According to the Daily Mail, Walsh reported that “physical damage to the servers and distribution panels was caused, which made it difficult for BA to quickly overcome the power outage.” And he also suggested in The Guardian that this “in itself was a problem that we could have overcome probably in a couple of hours, I don’t think it would have led to any cancellations.”
Mr. Walsh also admitted that “the company failed to communicate effectively to the fed-up passengers left to queue at Heathrow Airport.” The Daily Mail reported that he said, “I wouldn’t suggest for one minute we got communications right at BA, we didn’t.”
Strangely, for such a powerful global brand with so many PR assets at its disposal, it took two days for BA’s chief executive, Alex Cruz, to face his customers and the media. For two days he posted “choreographed video statements” and emailed staff to “gag them.” According to media reports, the BA boss finally apologized to passengers 48 hours after the incident. In his communication he not only “blamed a power surge at a data centre near Heathrow for the problem,” but he also dispelled claims that the crisis was caused by “outsourcing the running of computer systems to India.”
Philip Coggan, Buttonwood columnist and capital markets editor at The Economist in London, was directly impacted by the systems failure and shared his experience in a detailed column entitled, “Going nowhere. A computer failure at British Airways causes chaos.”
Coggan writes, “Every time our flight departure came close, it was further delayed. This happened nine times. The people at the BA information desk knew nothing; nor did the staff at Heathrow. Their only response was to hand out food vouchers and a leaflet on our rights. Crucially this did not mention the compensation due when a flight is delayed more than three hours.”
This is where the crisis got worse for BA: their frontline employees knew nothing!
Coggan added, “On the flight, all food (including water) had to be paid for. In this respect, BA has become a budget airline like Ryanair or easyJet. We also had to pay to reserve seats (so the family could sit together) and to check luggage. By the time we landed, it was past 11 at night so the flight was diverted from Tegel airport (Berlin, Germany), which has a night-flight ban. We ended up queuing past midnight for an expensive taxi ride into the city. No one from BA was there to help and guide us. The whole experience was alarming. The BA staff clearly were as poorly informed as the passengers; no one in management had taken control. No one was prioritizing those passengers who had waited longest. No one was checking that planes were on their way before changing flight times.”
Fallout from the crisis
- 75,000 people across the world left stranded
- A potential bill of compensation of approximately £150million (Pound Sterling)
- A damaged and tarnished reputation
Willie Walsh acknowledged that his airline’s communications with impacted customers stranded at both Heathrow and Gatwick airports and other airports around the world was just not good enough. BA’s web portal was down and this forced poorly informed employees to resort to social media to keep passengers updated. Walsh “recognized that BA had ‘real work to do in restoring the reputational damage’ to the airline and would be working hard on finding the best way of making the repairs.”
Despite acknowledging this, Walsh seemed to downplay the reputational damage caused by the systems failure and denied that there would be any long-lasting damage to the BA brand. According to The Telegraph newspaper he said, “Clearly there are incidents that are damaging to our reputation from time to time. We recover from these, we work hard to recover. This is an industry that has to be competitive and provide services that our customers want. Where we don’t do that we suffer. We will continue to work to make sure that we satisfy our customers every day, every week, every month of the year. I am not going to deny this is damage to us. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. But we have recovered from worse.”
However, despite Willie Walsh’s comments, BA’s brand was severely impacted. YouGov, an international Internet-based market research firm headquartered in the UK, provided excellent metrics about the incident. Its brand tracking data illustrate how badly this catastrophe affected the perception of British Airways. Results show that “Among the public at large, the airline’s buzz score (whether someone has heard something positive or negative about the brand in the past two weeks) has dropped dramatically from minus one to minus 13 in just five days” (from May 27 to May 31). “Further to this, the brand’s impression score (whether someone has a favourable impression of the brand) has fallen nine points, from 40 to 31.”
YouGov added, “Our brand crisis data repeatedly shows that brands that react quickly and efficiently to a crisis are able to limit the damage a scandal creates. However, over the weekend, BA was tardy in offering a spokesperson for interview, all the while customers complained loudly online, in person, and through the media about a lack of communication and a thorough explanation from the carrier about what was going on.”
The power crisis then morphed into a lost luggage crisis and a major backlog trap for the airline. BA asked passengers impacted to post lost luggage reports on its website, but the system was overwhelmed and unable to cope with the volume of people wanting to report lost luggage. To rub salt onto the wounds, not only were customers unable to get through to BA’s Madrid and India-based call centers, they also found that BA’s customer service operation was weighted against British passengers from a call cost and operating hours perspective.
Irate passengers vented their frustrations. Sky News presenter Jonathan Samuels tweeted BA saying “48 hours with no luggage & no updates on phone number or website! … Any advice?”
He was advised to check the BA website.
We can learn the following lessons from British Airways’ poor communications during their business continuity crisis and apply them to avoid compounding a crisis through lack of foresight and preparation. While these lessons are commonsensical, many seemingly competent companies ignore them over and over, making avoidable mistakes that contribute to the continued erosion of their reputation:
- Have a crisis communications plan. While it is wise to plan for likely incidents, it is even better to plan for the impacts of the incidents. Messaging must be carefully crafted to reflect this important distinction. Case in point: While people may be interested to know there was a power outage, they will be more interested and appreciative to hear that the company has a contingency plan and, as in the case of BA, what exactly it will be doing to get them to where they need to be.
- Assess the situation immediately. If the incident or business interruption will impact your ability to deliver your services or product at a predetermined time (as in the departure time of a plane), communicate immediately.
- Timing is everything. Many companies aim for their first communication to be out within one hour from the onset of a crisis. Of course running to say something too soon could be counterproductive. But waiting too long is worse. Therefore, plans should include a communication strategy to allay fear, resentment, and rumor mongering, as suggested by YouGov, and employees should be prepared to respond quickly and efficiently. Make sure your communication is factually correct and truthful. Try to deliver initial communications before the first hour passes. If a large number of the people are impacted, you can bet that within the first 15 minutes there will be negative social media comments, etc.
- Don’t hide your head in the sand. Communicate. Connect with customers clearly and sincerely even if you don’t have all of the facts yet. In many cases it is difficult to exactly determine when the problem will be resolved, especially when complex systems and networks with many dependencies and interdependencies are concerned, as happened with BA. But that doesn’t mean communication shouldn’t happen. With so many people depending on flights and so many tight connections and turnaround times for airplanes and crews, it becomes vital for communications to commence as soon as possible.
- Share what you know. It is better to say, “Houston, we have a problem,” than to ignore the problem altogether. A great deal of good will can be generated by simply stating something like, “We do not know what has gone wrong at this moment, but please expect significant delays/impacts. We apologize for all inconveniences caused. We will provide updates as soon as we have them.”
- Keep your stakeholders informed. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Customers, shareholders, regulatory authorities and partners appreciate updates. Regular updates keep them from worrying and demonstrate that you are “on the ball.” Time your posts judiciously, as too many irritate recipients, and too few make them “itchy.” Craft your messaging so that it is clear and specific. Avoid “puffery” that can undermine your stakeholders’ confidence in your integrity.
- Synergize your website and social media. Provide detailed incident updates on your website, and use social media such as Twitter and Facebook for alerts and updates and to drive interested parties and stakeholders to your website for more detailed information.
- Troubleshoot common IT problems ahead of time. Make sure you have the capacity to immediately boost your website bandwidth to handle increased traffic. Have a sound back-up plan for when things go wrong.
- Keep messaging uniform. All stakeholders (employees, media, customers, partners, etc.) must receive the same information. Plan for the eventuality that information can be unintentionally or intentionally leaked to the public and the media. Even when they sign agreements, employees often “let things slip” to alert the media or when a company is in the news. By releasing uniform information you stand a better chance of maintaining some control of the rumor mill and public speculation, which drives perception and opinion.
- Keep staff updated. Ensure that employees on the front line have access to constant messaging and to senior employees or team members to escalate or get a decision on an issue. Many media reported British Airways staff did not know what was going on. If employees do not know what is going on in a crisis, then employees and customers will think management does not know what it is doing. Don’t add to a chaotic situation by “communicating” chaos through poor employee training and preparation. Keep them informed.
- Monitor media. Track and analyze social media, broadcast media, and traditional media for accuracy and sentiment. Correct media inaccuracies quickly and concisely. Keep it simple, professional, and straightforward, and avoid “going to war” with the Twitter universe.
- Ensure that spokespeople are available at all times. Crisis spokespeople must be available 24/7/365. Stay connected to media representatives. Build strong media relationships ahead of a crisis to smooth out communications during the crisis. Avoid pre-recorded media statements. Get out in front of the bad news and deal with it. And be sure to have a backup spokesperson.
- Establish detailed compensation policies and procedures. Prepare for the worst, and have policies in place to ensure clients receive restitution and are appropriately compensated in a timely fashion.
- Hold a crisis communications postmortem. Determine what worked and what did not. Amend your crisis communications plan appropriately. Then test and exercise the new one.
NOTE: PR Lessons are condensed knowledge-sharing articles from Fortress Strategic Communications. Each lesson seeks to share important insight and objective opinion on newsworthy and not-so-newsworthy events.
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About Fortress Strategic Communications:
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. FSC also provides market specific solutions for data breach events and counsels startups looking to enter the risk management arena. The company draws on their executives’ combined 20 years of global experience in a broad array of vertical markets. For more information please visit www.fortresscomms.com or contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org