By James Fitzpatrick and Michelle Wang
As an affected customer of this crisis case, I was able to access all the critical information I needed in an easy-to-digest format, in a matter of minutes; an exemplary crisis communication response.
Here’s how they did it...
On 9 and 10 September 2019, British Airways pilots in the British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) staged a 48-hour walkout in a dispute over pay and conditions.
According to the Guardian, British Airways cancelled about 1,700 flights during the two days, with some disruption continuing into Wednesday and an estimated cost of £40 million a day.
With a second strike planned for 27 September, BA began cancelling more flights in preparation for BALPA union pilots walking out for another 24 hours. The airline was offering refunds or rebookings on British Airways at a later date or with one of its rivals for those affected by the cancellations, and said it was contacting passengers with impacted flights.
The BALPA later called off the 27 September strike but with my own BA flight booked for 14 September, I was paying particular attention to how this crisis unfolded.
So how good was their crisis communication response?
At first, it was slow and inadequate; the airline drew criticism early for failing to respond to customer queries when the first cancellations were announced. It didn’t help that they accidentally sent a batch of flight cancellation notices to the wrong customers; which no doubt contributed to the 40,000+ calls they received in under 24 hours.
But they bounced back well… immediately drafting in extra staff to support the call centre.
And their most impressive play (from a crisis communications point-of-view) was the strike information page on their website. It was a textbook example of what to put on your website during a crisis or disruption.
Your website is an obvious place for people to look for more information during a disruption. It makes sense to make it your one consistent source of the truth and direct all channels to it for the latest information – which is exactly what BA did.
I foolishly didn’t take a screenshot (sorry) and they’ve since taken the page down, but here’s a synopsis:
The top of the page is a clear and concise statement in human language (not legal speak) including:
Key facts about the planned strike;
BA’s willingness to “return to talks” with BALPA;
Strong apologies for the impact and inconvenience caused to customers; and
Direction to customers to keep consulting this page and the FAQ section below for the latest information before contacting BA customer call centres.
The above follows a simple and easy-to-digest crisis message strategy:
Acknowledge and show empathy for the effect on your stakeholders and apologise
Outline the facts
Explain what you’re doing to resolve the situation
Tell your stakeholders what they should do next (even if it’s just: keep checking this page for more information).
Then the critical information: simple and clear answers coupled with polite direction in response to customers’ Frequently Asked Questions, for example:
How or when will I know if my flight is cancelled?
What can I do if my flight is cancelled?
What if my flight is on another date?
Will I be refunded?
Having a FAQ with concise and useful information helped take the pressure off the call centres and minimised the spread of misinformation.
In this case, BA reported their call centres returning to some normality by the next day.
From our experience, more often than not, customers just want to know how this crisis will affect them, what you're going to do to fix it, and what they need to do (if anything). Spending valuable communication real estate on explaining the context behind the crisis may only contribute to their frustration.
As the situation unfolds, it’s also important that you then collect as much feedback as possible from the call centres, frontline staff and social media teams. If there’s additional customer questions that keep coming through – or the situation develops – update your website and FAQs to match those developments.
British Airways followed this approach well, updating their webpage as the situation unfolded.
Being able to publish quality crisis messaging to your website with useful FAQs, and keeping it up-to-date as the situation unfolds, requires having quality communicators and writers on hand.
Many organisations have large enough teams to cover this; if you don’t, we have a bank of expert communicators with plenty of crisis experience ready to help you as extra hands on deck.
If you need help, don’t hesitate to email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), or call +44 7889 268294.