British Airways Outage Gives Rise to Outrage, Strange Media Relations
This past weekend, British Airways had an outage that affected computer systems at 170 airports, especially its hubs at Heathrow and Gatwick in London, canceling flights for 75,000 passengers. The company’s crisis communications were strange and haphazard. It wasn’t so much what the company said, but what little it said and how it decided to say even that.
The problem occurred on a big travel weekend: Memorial Day in the U.S. and a bank holiday in the U.K. As one can imagine, the Twitter and Facebook comments were alive with ridicule and customer complaints.
Yet, the company’s communications, especially its media outreach, were sporadic and begrudging. We have some evidence that BA thought it was even right to downplay the importance of the press. Clearly that was a mistake.
First of all, the company didn’t widely distribute press releases, as far as we can tell. CEO Alex Cruz (pictured) refused to talk to the press until Monday (the crisis started Saturday). Instead, BA posted three video statements from Cruz (one per day) and linked them to Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Only one of those postings included a transcript — talk about going out of your way to make reporters’ jobs even harder.
Cruz’s words in the first video, on Saturday, actually hit a lot of right notes. He provided logistical information (such as, stay away from Heathrow and Gatwick), apologized, empathized, showed gratitude to customers, explained what happened and what the company was doing to address it, and told passengers they could get refunds.
But he also told customers to check the BA website, Twitter account, and Facebook page for more information, yet the company really didn’t provide much in the way of updates.
In the second video, on Sunday, again Cruz had much to say on logistics (Gatwick was almost back up to full operations) and he expressed empathy.
On Monday, May 29, the company posted a third video — this time on YouTube, not its website, and this time with an employee lobbing questions at Cruz, so it was more of a genial Q&A. Again, much of it was logistical — the company was now almost fully up to speed. But the CEO directed customers to a place on the website for more information that appears not to exist, or at least that is not linked to the home page.
In its communications, and once Cruz finally started talking to the press, the company struggled to explain the cause of the problem. Its explanations centered on a power outage causing the computer systems to go down and the backup system failing.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that BA finally said the problem occurred when power that had gone down surged back on and caused damage to IT servers (this explanation is meeting some skepticism). Reuters cited a BA statement that we cannot find online, including at its website.
A related issue British Airways had to deal with was the contention from many (including union leaders) that the crisis was caused by outsourcing. BA has been on a cost-reduction tear, including sending 70 IT jobs to India. Cruz had to continually deny this. He also had to combat calls for his resignation.
What’s striking in all this is that BA seems to have purposefully decided to ignore media relations. The Daily Mailgot hold of a poorly worded internal email Cruz sent to staff imploring them not to comment to the media. It went beyond the typical (and smart) approach of centralizing the messaging. Cruz wrote: “Guys, either you are part of the team working to fix this or you aren’t. We are not in the mode of ‘debriefing on what happened’ but rather ‘let’s fix this mode.’”
Apparently the employees weren’t impressed. “At first I thought it was a joke. It has provoked more anger from staff,” a cabin-crew member told the Financial Times. That same employee said the workers, in the FT’s words, “felt upset by the lack of visibility of management, and poor communication, throughout the disaster.”
We agree. While some of the actual messaging was good, its channels and frequency were not.
Photo Credit: British Airways
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