Ryanair’s recent botched communication of flight cancellations is a stark reminder of why, when things go wrong, it’s important you get your crisis communication right.
The budget airline’s chief executive, Michael O’Leary, was forced to apologise last week following widespread criticism of the decision to cancel up to 50 flights a day until the end of October, and the way it communicated that decision to those affected.
Customers across Europe took to social media in their droves to vent their frustrations, particularly at the company’s failure to provide a full list of flights affected by the cancellations. A barrage of negative headlines followed, as did a press conference, in which Mr O’Leary apologised, admitting it was a “mess up” and acknowledging the company’s miscommunication had caused a “storm of worry and concern” for around 315,000 passengers who were set to fly with the airline within the next six weeks.
The “mess up” looks likely to prove costly for the airline, both financially and in terms of its reputation. Ryanair expects a bill of around €25 million, most of it in compensation for those affected, and its share price initially took a hammering in response to the news.
More worrying for the company, however, is the reputational damage it has sustained. The furore shows no sign of slowing, with pilots turning down bonuses offered in demand for better working conditions, and branding the company a “disgrace”.
This is not the first time this year that an airline has come under fire for the poor handling of an emerging crisis, and it would appear that Mr O’Leary learned nothing from the way United Airlines mismanaged its communication when a passenger was dragged from his seat and forcibly removed from a flight.
As both of these examples illustrate, businesses’ reputations are often damaged not necessarily by the crisis itself, but by the poor communication surrounding it.
So what could Michael O’Leary and Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, have done differently? Well, there certainly isn’t a one size fits all approach to crisis management, but there are some general principles that can help organisations to get on the front foot and start to control the narrative, rather than be controlled by it.
Every good communication practitioner knows that most of the work in responding to a crisis happens before it even breaks. Developing a robust crisis management plan, which considers potential ‘worse case’ scenarios and how you should respond to them, is a must for any organisation.
As part of this, training identified spokespeople under mock crisis conditions is critical, so that they are fully prepped to deal with real-life media interviews when the pressure is really on.
When a crisis does break, time is of the essence, and you need to respond quickly and decisively. Being able to swiftly establish the parameters of the issue, affected parties and, importantly, the facts can mean the difference between stopping a story in its tracks or watching the news agenda unfold, warts and all, before your eyes.
In most circumstances, a holding statement is your best friend. It buys you a bit of breathing space as you establish the facts. Importantly, it demonstrates to all concerned that you are alive to the issue, aware of the concerns and are doing something proactively about it.
And, as with most things in life, honesty is always the best policy. Don’t try and fudge the facts or deny allegations if they are true, as it will undoubtedly come back to haunt you. In today’s age of mobile technology and social media, everyone is a journalist, and damning footage can be recorded anywhere, anytime, before being shared across the world with the touch of a button. The traumatic scenes of the passenger being dragged off the United Airline flights that went viral is testament to this.
Sorry may always seem to be the hardest word, but sometimes you just need to hold your hands up and take responsibility. People are generally forgiving and understand that things do not always go to plan. Addressing a situation frankly, and acknowledging that you didn’t get it right, can go a long way to restoring that all-important trust in your brand.
While it may be tempting, burying your head in the sand and hoping it will go away is not the way to deal with a crisis. But if you react quickly, honestly and transparently from the start, you may even find that your reputation is enhanced as a result.
Angharad Neagle is group managing director of Freshwater UK, the Cardiff-headquartered communications consultancy.