How to avoid a crisis turning into a witch hunt

May 30, 2017

You would have thought that the top dogs at British Airways might have been watching the United Airlines saga unfold a couple of months back, learning lessons from the wings.

It seems not.

I, like the rest of us probably, watched stunned as the BA CEO, along with his senior executives, went running for cover during the IT failure over the weekend, only emerging nearly 48 hours later with any kind of commentary to face what was by that time, a witch hunt.

We all know sh*t happens. Systems fail, things go wrong, individuals behave improperly. What I can’t get my head around is why major organisations are proving so bad at communicating with their public and their people when it does.

BA’s customer facing staff were widely reported to be obviously distressed over the weekend at the way they were left to pick up the pieces for the untold misery that was caused to passengers. As for the customers, the brand advocates, the share price…? Let’s just say the estimated £100m compensation bill is the least of BA’s worries.

Whether it’s a holiday, honeymoon, weekend break, visit to friends or family or work flight home to see your kids – having a line put through your flight and therefore your trip is an emotive issue. It demands an emotive response. A response from human beings.

Why do the highest paid executives in business fail to recognise this and act in a way that is fast, genuine, emotive and human? Why does ‘sorry’ – that magic little word that has the power to drive empathy, understanding and patience fall out of the Oxford dictionary the moment it all goes wrong?

I also have to ask the question of why these organisations are not set up to deal with the wider impact of a crisis – response staff ready to be switched on, customer communication channels ready to be stepped up, the plethora of other steps required to ensure staff feel empowered to help, not just left to be abused and customers feel informed and respected, despite being disappointed. Granted, it’s not a cheap exercise to be ‘crisis ready’ but it’s a damn sight cheaper than the bill BA is about to foot.

No-one wants a crisis but dealt with in the right way, with response systems in place and a leader who has the balls to get out there and face it, the aftermath of a crisis can actually have a positive impact on a brand. It’s that ‘not what you do wrong but how you respond to it’ old chestnut. Dealt with in the wrong way and a crisis very quickly becomes a witch hunt.

A leader has to be a leader in good times and bad, especially bad. CEO’s everywhere, when the sh*t hits the fan – for the sake of your people and your paying customers, grow a pair will you.

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