As Southwest Airlines experienced over the 2016 summer, unforeseen circumstances can land companies in precarious situations. The airline experienced technology failures in the height of the summer travel season, yet met the crisis scenario with swift implementation of their crisis management plan. Although nearly 2,000 flights were cancelled and an estimated 250,000 passengers were stranded, Southwest Airlines’ multichannel crisis communication approach upheld the company’s reputation as a customer-focused airline.
Regardless of the circumstances, every crisis has the potential to negatively impact a company’s reputation, daily operations, and financial performance. Companies must have a clear understanding of their impacted audience, whether it be their employees, customers, or a community, and tailor a crisis management plan accordingly.
Crisis Management Team Activation
Activating a response team that can deliver swift and effective responses is the bridge to stabilizing a crisis situation. In order for a crisis management plan to be properly initiated, employees and responders should understand established response policies and intended context of emergencies communications. A strategic response framework with checklists and criteria that can guide the decision-making process must be developed and tested prior to a crisis in order for the scenario to be stabilized.
A tested crisis communications plan is instrumental in minimizing chaos. Communication policies and procedures should be developed as part of the planning phase, not on the verge of, during, or in the aftermath of a disaster. Through pre-planning, a communication plan can be fully integrated into the overall crisis management plan.
Response communications must be timely, transparent, and dynamic in order to defuse incident escalations and potential rumors. Unfortunately, during the height of a crisis, bleak realities and raw emotion often alter communication agreements and promote misinformation. In this 24/7 information age highlighted by real-time social media connections, an exercised communications plan should include informational jurisdiction decisions about what to release, by whom, and when.
Southwest Airlines utilized multiple social media channels in order to address the technical failure and subsequent customer complaints. The company’s multiple live Facebook video feeds kept customers up-to-date on the current state of the technology challenges. In total, the feeds received over one million views. This targeted approach minimized the potential perceived incompetence that could have resulted from a lack of communication and should be a lessons learned for other companies.
Engaging with media outlets and the exponential number of layperson journalists can be an unnerving element of a response. Through crisis management planning, specialized training, and all-inclusive exercises, companies can stabilize potential chaotic public relations scenarios. The more detailed the information, the less room for interpretation. In order to regulate inaccurate perceptions, initial communications should contain the following elements:
- A brief, focused, and factual description of the situation and initial response actions
- Processes established to minimize and counteract the emergency
- An expression of empathy and apologies to impacted parties
- Access to subject matter experts to answer media inquiries
- Timing for media follow-up but only promise what can be delivered
- A statement of commitment to return to “business as usual”
Crisis Recovery Guidelines
Specific recovery guidelines provide agreed-to procedures to help facilitate an expedited return to normal operating conditions. A detailed and collaborative planning effort can equate to a faster recovery time, minimizing the ongoing effects of the disaster. Potential risks and associated consequences must be identified and planned for prior to an emergency in order to react efficiently.
When developing crisis management plans, companies should consider the following questions:
- Are clear and accurate internal notification and activation procedures in place to mitigate the crisis? Is all contact information up-to-date?
- Are procedures specified to enable trained observers to confirm, characterize and quantify the impact of the crisis?
- Can the incident be reported rapidly and reliably to the on-site staff to take action?
- Who is able to provide responders with the necessary information to accurately respond?
- Can further planning and response mobilization be implemented and communicated based on current and potential site specific conditions?
- Is there a reliable model to provide timely prediction of immediate, intermediate and long-term impacts and how will this be relayed to your targeted audience?
- Does the initial assessment indicate obstacles to mounting a response? Can these be mitigated based on a risk assessment?
- Have procedures been tested with appropriate responders?
- Are multi-channel communications and backup systems available and reliable?
- How does social media and the various media outlets tie into the crisis management plan?