October 17, 2013
Serious flaws in an organization’s approach to public relations often pass without notice during good times. Deficiencies in PR staffing, planning, philosophy and management relationships are starkly revealed when crisis strikes. The handling of the Asiana crash at San Francisco International Airport this past July 6 is a prime example.
When the Korean-based airline’s Flight 214 slammed into a seawall just short of the runway, two people died and more than 180 people were injured. (A third person, a 16-year-old Chinese student, died when a foam-spraying truck ran her over on the runway.)
Asiana’s initial response to the accident was so inept that the airline’s reputation, and most likely its business, will be damaged for years to come.
As with BP during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, teachers and professors will cite this accident in PR classes as a prime example of crisis mismanagement.
Preparing in advance is an essential element of successfully handling a crisis. Every organization will have a crisis at some point, but they cannot know when, how or the extent of the long-term damage. Studies have shown that the public tends to remember how an organization managed a crisis more than the details of the incident itself.
Every company needs to identify its most likely crisis situations and have a thorough response plan. For an airline, the most likely bad event is a fatal plane crash.
Asiana made many mistakes, both in the immediate aftermath of the accident and in the ensuing days and weeks. The airline did not have any spokespeople outside of Korea, so there weren’t any representatives in the United States to work with the media. It refused offers of outside help, which is a grievous error since it didn’t have any PR presence in the states.
Echoing the infamous quote of then-BP CEO Tony Hayward, who said, “I want my life back,” Asiana president and CEO Yoon Young-doo reportedly explained the lack of outside help by saying, “It’s not the time to manage the company’s image.”
A comment like this shows a lack of understanding of the difference between promoting a company’s brand on a daily basis and having an obligation to keep the public informed during a crisis. Apparently, Young-doo didn’t view public relations as more than a marketing tool.
Meanwhile, someone provided KTVU-TV in San Francisco with fake, racially insensitive names of the pilots on the flight.
After the station aired these names, Asiana threatened to sue KTVU, which had apologized profusely for the report. The airline later withdrew the threat, but not before media outlets questioned the wisdom of a lawsuit at a time like this.
“The early investigation is pointing fingers at your pilots, and your big action plan right now is to sue a Bay Area TV station for using fake names for the pilots?” wrote The Los Angeles Times’ Karen Klein on July 15.
It’s hard to image that outside PR counsel wouldn’t have advised against such action.
Asiana later brought out the cynics’ chorus by offering all of the survivors a payment of $10,000. The company claimed that the cash was not a settlement offer but said it thought that the families could use the money.
However, the Korean news agency Yonhap said the families had to agree to eight conditions that the company would not disclose, citing possible impact on future lawsuits.
Preventing such blunders and questionable actions is just one reason to seek PR counsel during a crisis. Here are some others:
There are many lessons we can learn from the Asiana crash. Here are a few:
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win with the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. He is president of Virgil Scudder & Associates, based in Miami Beach, Fla.
Email: virgil at virgilscudder.com