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British Airways’ torrid weekend gives valuable lesson for crisis media management

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“You can’t put a price on reputation” was how the BBC’s transport correspondent Richard Westcott ended his report into the IT meltdown suffered by British Airways over the Bank Holiday weekend.

The journalist’s point provides a valuable insight for any public facing organisation about how it should manage a crisis when it hits.

Watching the events unfold over the weekend it seemed as if BA had learnt nothing from the media drubbing it took when the opening of Terminal 5 turned to chaos in the face of a luggage system failure.

Over this Bank Holiday weekend no senior executive of the airline faced the media to explain the problem with reports repeatedly saying that “No one was available from BA”.

There was a short statement put on YouTube from the chief executive which should have been supplementary to facing the media. In fact it was not until Monday, that the BBC noted that BA’s chief executive had “broken cover three days after the problems started”.

It seemed as if the company was not in control of the situation and it became a major element of the news story that they had recently moved the IT support offshore while making most of the UK-based IT team redundant. The media also relied on anecdotal stories from travellers who also made it seem as if communication within the company had failed.

In these situations, no matter how difficult, a senior member of the management team should be made available to the media and appear to be transparent in explaining the problem and the steps being taken to get travellers on their way. It almost felt as if there was in fact no crisis media plan in place. For the media, the story became about how communication within the company had failed.

When Talk Talk suffered its data breach in 2015, CEO Dido Harding appeared frequently across all media to explain the problem and update on progress. It was showing leadership that she was prepared to face media scrutiny at a difficult time but realised the need to allay fears in order to protect the reputation and brand.

BA will have been severely damaged with compensation claims reported to be likely in the hundreds of millions. With more than 75,000 people affected and millions more watching and reading the news who will probably think twice about booking with the airline, the question posed about the price of a reputation will play out over the coming months.

What can be said is that a more proactive media response by BA could have minimised some of that cost.