Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Calibrating Your Crisis Management: Sometimes a PR Fail isn’t Fatal

As I dug into NBC’s recent coverage of Boeing Co’s 787 Dreamliner jet, which had suffered its third mishap in as many days, I was ready for action. Here comes another blog post chastising corporate America for failing to be transparent in their PR missteps.

But the story made me cool my jets.

While the Dreamliner’s problems aren’t trivial – a 40-gallon runway fuel leak, brake problems, and an electrical fire on three separate aircraft in three days – no one, not Boeing corporate, not passengers, not aerospace analysts, and not Japan’s All Nippon Airways or Japan Airlines, which purchased the 787s are freaking out.

Instead the news coverage had a very measured tone.  

In an almost deadpan fashion reminiscent of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the story’s point was simple. Take a deep breath. We’ll get the problems fixed. These types of glitches are common on new aircraft – the Dreamliner began service in November 2011. And no one was injured.

Of course, Boeing’s stock price did drop and concerns have been rightly raised. But NBC’s story provided lessons beyond appropriate crisis management.

Knowing your client and knowing how to respond when things don’t go according to plan also comes down to an appreciation of culture. I really believe that if this was a Boeing story with mostly North American players and not Asian companies, there would be a tendency to exaggerate the situation. 
There would be the obligatory quote of a panicked traveler and tacit threats of legal action following the harrowing and stressful experience of being aboard a damaged plane.

Many Asian cultures take respect very seriously. Which is not to say that others don’t. Even our clients and other companies within the same industries can have widely-varying internal cultures. Communications tactics that work for one company don’t always apply to another client, let alone another country.

For goodness sake, it wasn’t the Costa Concordia sinking.

Other airlines still want Dreamliners – NBC pointed out that Air China and Hainan Airlines  plan to keep their orders for 15 and 10 planes, respectively, further calming the situation. Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker even called the planes “revolutionary.”

Imagine that.

Three nations (four if you include Boeing’s Chicago headquarters), separated by thousands of miles and with widely varying cultures holding similar, non-threatening positions. If only that happened more often. They don’t want to fan the flames of outrage or play the blame game; they want to admit fault, measure the seriousness of the situation and move on.

So, before adopting a communications one-size-fits-all approach, remember this story about airlines and cultural relevance. Sometimes a PR fail isn’t fatal. In other words, a two-alarm fire doesn’t require a four-alarm response – overreacting can be just as dangerous as under-reacting.

What’s your view on a “PR fail” and overreacting in times of perceived crisis?

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