Travel is an industry of unknowns and unpredictability. Over the course of a single trip, one traveller might be dealing with or served by countless different operators. Whether it's booking a trip through a travel marketplace, getting an Uber to the airport or complaining about your hotel, there are always opportunities for an established brand to slip up. PR mistakes occur, by definition, in the public domain. Here are a few of the most high profile in recent times, along with what travel operators can hope to learn from them.
Back in May 2017, British Airways had the nightmare of all nightmares, the situation that no airline ever wants to deal with: a power outage that left its IT system crippled. The result was thousands of stranded passengers, hundreds of cancelled flights and an embarrassing ordeal for a brand that prides itself on quality and reliability.
Rumours began to circulate that it was some kind of cyber attack, that BA's systems had been compromised. The company was understandably cautious about giving too much detail over what had happened. On the ground, airport staff struggled to deal with the hordes of frustrated holidaymakers. It was a recipe for a PR disaster.
There is only so much that an operator can do when fundamental systems, such as those handling bookings, are wiped out. Although staff on the ground were reportedly less than informed about what was going on, British Airways was relatively quick to issue the following statement on its Twitter account, from CEO Alex Cruz.
With a problem this unavoidable, the only possible PR move was to issue a public statement like this and front up to the problem. The message had clear instructions, an apology, reassurance concerning refunds and a partial explanation. There wasn't much more that British Airways could do given the circumstances.
In the first example, British Airways used social media to their advantage. They quickly spread a clear message to worried travellers, reassuring them, apologising and going some way to explaining what was happening. The company was able to do this because of the popularity of platforms just like Twitter - Once it's on Twitter, it's open to the world.
That same level of transparency and potential virility can also be the fuel for a total PR nightmare. That much was confirmed after this disgraceful incident was caught on camera before the departure of a United Airlines flight...
The video shows a paying passenger being forcibly removed from flight 3411 on April 9th, because United Airlines deliberately overbooked its flight and needed to make room for cabin crew. Staff asked for volunteers to leave the plane, and when nobody stepped forward, one unfortunate gentleman was dragged off, literally kicking and screaming.
Understandably, this outrageous treatment caused a stir online and rapidly became a global story. In itself, a complete PR disaster, highlighting all of the traits that travellers despise in industry giants: greed, indifference, disregard and a total lack of empathy.
But the blunders didn't stop there. In the following days, everybody involved with the airline, from the social media team to its CEO, appeared to make things worse with poorly thought out statements. These only added fuel to the fire. CEO Oscar Munoz referred to the clear assault that had taken place aboard one of his airline's planes as 're-accommodating a customer'.
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0— United Airlines (@united) April 10, 2017
And it got worse. The social media team appeared to be doing everything possible to keep the fire burning. Here they are explaining how a lack of volunteers justified the passenger in question being forcibly removed:
Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave ^MD— United Airlines (@united) April 10, 2017
Aside from the initial incident, which was always going to be impossible to explain away, the United Airlines saga went from bad to worse because of how the emerging situation was mishandled. Everyone from the social media team to the CEO badly misread public sentiment and failed to respond accordingly.
Eventually, Oscar Munoz did issue a strong apology. But because this came long after the event and after other statements had served to fan the flames to the extent that United's stock was plummeting, it wasn't taken as sincere by the public.
Travel operators need to accept that when things go wrong, they can go viral quickly. As such, teams (particularly on social media) need to be prepared to respond quickly, appropriately and with empathy. Social media teams should also understand that their responses are completely public, and craft messages carefully to avoid further damage to their reputations.
It doesn't take a genius to see why the footage from that United Airlines flight was so controversial. The company's inability to see it from the same perspective is what helped the situation escalate to a global news story.
Often PR situations can escalate because it's not clear who is to blame, and the parties involved appear unwilling to accept responsibility. This is sometimes the case when a terrible tragedy has unfolded. One example of this is the sad passing of two young children while on holiday with their father in Corfu in 2006. The boy and girl died because of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a boiler leak at their accommodation, which was provided by Thomas Cook through a third party.
Thomas Cook took legal action against the hotel in Greece where the boys died and protested against inquests into the children’s deaths taking place in the UK. The popular tour operator then received £3 million in damages from the hotel and was heavily criticised after the children's parents were awarded just over 10% of that figure.
It was not until 9 years later after the event that the company's CEO agreed to meet with the family and issue a formal apology for how the situation had been dealt with. It donated £1.5m to charity and went on to be found guilty after an inquest jury reached a verdict of unlawful killing. The ruling stated that Thomas Cook had breached its duty of care.
No gesture or words could ever replace the lives lost in a tragic event such as that which occurred in Corfu in 2006.
But in mishandling the situation and its aftermath, Thomas Cook quickly developed a reputation for prioritising the financial cost of the event over the human, lacking empathy and being indifferent to the family and their loss.
For a travel operator whose business is almost exclusively dedicated to family holidays, coming across as a faceless corporation at a time of crisis was the last thing it should have been doing.
When tragedies such as this do occur, instead of shying away from responsibility, travel operators would do well to embrace the situation first and ask question later. Mistakes can be forgiven. Even negligence can be forgiven. But the emotional impact and the damage caused by indifference can linger for years.