American Airlines Facing Turbulence With PR Crisis

Hitting a patch of turbulence on a flight is one thing. Having your seat come loose all together? Well, that’s an entirely different problem.

In two separate incidents on Sept. 28 and Oct. 1, American Airlines flights had to be diverted after seats came loose during travel.

It just happens to be the latest in a long list of problems that have brought the airline under scrutiny.

According to a CNN report, AA, which filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in late 2011, has been hit hard by labor troubles, delays and flight cancellations. The airline persuaded a judge to throw out its contract with the pilots union in September. Since then, the pilots have been engaging in what the airline calls a slowdown that has caused the number of delayed and canceled flights to skyrocket.

Slowdowns lead to delayed flights, which leads to unhappy customers, which leads to a major PR crisis. A "Friends Don't Let Friends Fly American Airlines" blog post detailed one customer’s bad experience on the airline. In the social media age, one bad consumer complaint about a brand can create a snowball effect of bad publicity on the Internet. 

What PR pros have to be prepared for is how to respond when problems arise on multiple fronts your brand seems headed on a downward spiral. With the public perception of American Airlines in flux, not only is the organization in crisis management mode, but reputation management has to be a priority for its communicators as well. 

In a previous PR News article, John R. Brooks, associate director of Communication Services of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Chicago, offered the following tips to consider when responding to a crisis:

  • Distribute your response/comment/story through multiple channels: Post on your Web site; post links on your organization’s Facebook and Twitter accounts; send to news distribution services such as Business Wire or PRNewswire; e-mail key reporters and constituents; and to respond to constituents’ phone calls, provide printed copies to office staff for use when answering questions.
  • Transparency matters: Tell as much information as you can, but guard what should be kept private, such as personnel information.
  • Have a crisis management team: Never try to develop and execute a crisis communication plan by yourself. It’s best to have small team already designated, with about four standing members, who will work with you. Have standing rule that any member of your crisis management team may call a meeting should the need arise.
  • Use a single spokesperson: You want your response to be as uniform as possible. Determine who will speak for your organization and provide that person with talking points. Tip: Don’t ask an attorney to be your spokesperson. You want a key leader in your organization to speak, often with the advice of an attorney.
  • Be prepared to correct inaccurate information: Sometimes information reported by news organizations is just plain wrong. Ask that incorrect information be corrected if there’s a critical error that changes the facts.

I would add one more thing, fix the problems!

Follow Jamar Hudson: @jamarhudson