The spring bank holiday weekend saw thousands in the UK stranded at airports with little to no information available to them due to an IT failure on BA’s technical system. Most flights were completely cancelled and many passengers scrambled to book alternative transport with competing airlines. There will be many articles and blogs about what operationally should have happened, why it happened, and what could have been done to prevent it in the first place.
But it’s also crucial to look at the ultimate failure of clear internal and external communications during a time which required the utmost professionalism in communications. It is clear to see that despite BA’s resounding reputation there were multiple failures in obtaining any sense of business continuity as well as a drowning approach of appropriate crisis communications.
Technology is unavoidable in this day and age and it certainly has the potential to make everyone’s lives so much easier. That is, of course, when it works. When something goes wrong, no matter how small or large, the impact can be catastrophic. It is inevitable that technology will fail us at one point or another, and knowing that means it is entirely possible to have a business continuity plan – including a crisis comms plan - in place for when that time comes.
Perhaps there was a plan in place for BA, but it’s clear that it didn’t compensate for the situation at hand. None of the communications systems worked and there are reports of a clear lack of knowledge on the staff’s part in communicating what was wrong to the concerned customers which resulted in a complete stop of any business function. There are certainly logistical plans in place for when an airplane breaks down to accommodate for the continuation of business, so why should a communication plan be any different?
If anything is learned from this blunder I certainly hope that it is the significance of having a strong, stable, and comprehensive communication plan in place for absolutely any scenario. Some important factors to ensure aren’t overlooked are listed below:
Network: Establishing a network of people within the company that will be spearheading the communication plan is first and foremost. Without an up-to-date network and alternative channels of communication in place then the whole plan will fail. This network should include the company spokesperson and senior management along with the associated person heading up the comms plan.
Speed: Ensuring that the right information is flowing to the right people within an appropriate amount of time is the next step. The rise of the ‘citizen witness’ through social media means that going through a long approvals process at corporate speed is just not good enough. It allows time for other angles and stories to get out to the public and it loses the ability to control the message. The recent CIPR International Global PRactice Conference highlighted the 15-30-60-90 rule for crisis comms – start comms 15 minutes after a crisis; confirm information at 30 minutes; provide fuller media interviews at 60 minutes; and hold a formal press briefing at 90 minutes.
Flexibility: The plan should be firm yet adaptable. It should be able to conform to events as they change and develop respectively.
What has become abundantly clear not only from this BA fiasco, but from other corporate comms disasters this year (think United Airlines), is that having a crisis comms plan in place is both entirely necessary and entirely possible. Examples like this also underline why public relations should be valued at board level and how PR professionals can contribute to ensuring the ship (if you excuse the mixed transport metaphor!) will sail smoothly, even in choppy waters.