Owning a crisis: a tough but necessary call

More often than not, a crisis is not necessarily caused by the company. In many cases, the cause of the crisis (or issue) cannot even be controlled by the company. But still, it’s the response to the situation that matters. Failure to respond appropriately will result in negative headlines, serious flak in social media, and ultimately a damaged reputation and loss of business. Here’s a new case of double failure: It seems as if American Airlines couldn’t care less about a sickening case of groping onboard of one of its planes. Both, on the spot and in its media response.

What happened is best described by this article in the Washington Post (full story):

“The first warning sign came before the plane had even taken off.

Chad Cameron Camp had his choice of seats on the half-empty American Airlines flight from Dallas to Portland, Ore. But Camp, 26, curiously chose a middle seat — right next to an unaccompanied 13-year-old girl, the FBI said in a statement.

Flight attendants offered to move Camp to another seat where he would have more room, but he declined.

“No, I’m fine,” he said, according to a criminal complaint obtained by The Washington Post..

When a flight attendant returned for drink service a half hour later, she saw Camp’s hand on the teenager’s crotch, according to the complaint.

She also saw “a single tear coming down the victim’s cheek.”

Flight attendants separated Camp and the teenager for the rest of the voyage. And as soon as the plane landed, the unaccompanied minor was rushed off the plane.”

When the flight landed in Portland, the teenager was rushed off the plane to meet her stepfather, while Mr. Camp was arrested (and to express my personal opinion, I certainly hope he will stay in jail for a very long time). Later on, shocking details of the situation were made public by the lawyer of the victim’s family. Whether or not these were leaked to put pressure on the airline to  “settle the case”: If they prove right, the airline’s flight crew failed big time to protect the girl which was traveling as an unaccompanied minor (UM in aviation language). Even worse: The airline charged 300 US$ for this service.

If it rains, it pours: American Airlines was confronted with the claims and asked for a statement. I can imagine too well how a poor devil in the airline’s press department pulled an old statement from the records, replaced place, time, and date, checked it with the company’s legal department (which probably resulted in removal of the last bit of empathy, sorrow, or concern) and sent it out. Here it is, according to credible source CNN:

“American Airlines takes these matters very seriously and is fully cooperating with law enforcement. American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe and pleasant travel experience for them.”

Not only is this statement lacking any trackable residue of empathy. The statement was also basically a copy & paste from a statement given about a year ago, in response to a similar case, which read like this:

“American cares deeply about our young passengers and is committed to providing a safe travel experience for them. We take these matters very seriously and have cooperated fully and immediately with law enforcement’s investigation of the suspect.”**

So wait a minute! There was another case, similar to the actual case, about a year ago?! The airline cared deeply about it, was committed, they took it seriously, and what happened since then? Not too much, apparently. One would imagine that the airline actively takes up the case, sensitizes and trains its cabin staff, makes them aware of what happened, to ensure these things don’t repeat. To put things into perspective: This was not about the airline running out of Coke on a flight, this was about the integrity, the dignity and the well-being of a passenger who was placed in American Airlines’ care.

My two (actually, five) cents on this case:

  1. Textbook crisis communication does not work anymore (if it had ever worked at all). Companies don’t get away with pulling statements from similar cases and just updating them. It takes honesty, empathy, and the statement needs to be backed up by comprehensible action.
  2. Every single situation needs to be assessed individually: Who’s fault is it? What are the risks? Who are the stakeholders and what is at stake? And most importantly: How do we position ourselves?
  3. In today’s world, the public expects visual, tangible, and firm leadership from a company. Leadership means also to take accountability (not to be confused with the legal term of responsibility). Owning a crisis situation is a necessary call. Not an easy one. But essential.
  4. If you translate “ownership” into communication, the result is definitely more than issuing a media statement soft as a freshly baked doughnut.
  5. Translated into operations, “ownership” means that American Airlines takes every possible effort to ensure that sexual assaults of any kind do not happen again on its planes. In an environment which full of “standard operation procedures”, accomplishing this is no rocket science.

A lack of ownership is inevitably resulting in a loss of reputation, like in the case described.


Note: ** The suspect in the 2015 case, a medical doctor, was criminally charged but later acquitted, but a civil lawsuit against the doctor and American Airlines is still pending.

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