Comment: How to keep customers onside through cancellation crisis

Charlie Terry, founder and MD of Ceek Marketing, says it’s not too late for airlines to manage the ongoing PR disaster surrounding airport disruption, and outlines how businesses can try to navigate the crisis

For anyone who has their summer holiday on the horizon, the last few weeks will have been more than a little nerve-wracking as they waited to find out if their flights would be cancelled by the government-imposed airport slots rules “amnesty”.

With more than 10,000 flights scrapped already there are now hundreds of thousands of disgruntled customers scrambling to find alternative transport, and with the triple whammy of a vastly reduced workforce, massive demand and increased prices, the problem is hugely exacerbated and near impossible to resolve easily.

And the timing couldn’t be worse. Not only did it all happen a matter of days before the school summer holidays were due to start, but many families will not have been abroad since before the pandemic and will have had a lot of emotion riding on this year’s trip.

So how can airlines best mitigate against the public outpouring of anger and frustration?

Invest both time and money into your social media

This is the most obvious place to start as it’s where any business can control its voice, react in real time and engage directly with the customer. Twitter is traditionally where people go to vent, tagging the brand they are cross with and hoping to get some answers. While there may not be solutions to their problems available to share, brands should still acknowledge the feelings of the aggrieved.

One to one responses should be prioritised as they will be more impactful and welcome than blanket posts on a company Twitter feed, so investing in personnel to respond directly to people should be a priority. Switching to Direct Messages will also avoid too much public mud-slinging, if it comes to that. However, don’t be too hasty in firing off responses because supplying incorrect information will only add fuel to the fire.

If sheer volume means you can’t respond to every Tweet, focus on those where you can provide a resolution or helpful advice. Deflecting away from social media by directing people to information pages on your website, an online resource that allows them to make a compensation claim, or a page that outlines their rights, will be seen as accommodating and proactive rather than passive or disinterested.

Check your tone

In all communications – direct or general – the tone adopted is of vital importance. In this instance BA needs to avoid the ‘computer says no’ approach, and be as human as possible. No one wants to feel like they’re speaking to a machine. That said, when dealing with a PR crisis of this scale there is not an iota of room for jokes, excuses or finger pointing. Aim for contrite, apologetic and transparent.

While an apology is not enough on its own, and must be accompanied by, at best, a solution and, at worst, an attempt at helpful information, it is the absolute number one priority. In the case of BA they know there is no resolution that can be offered, but just saying ‘I’m sorry’ will stop people in their tracks and could take the anger out of their frustration.

Look at the bigger picture

When something huge and very distracting happens for a business it’s so important to look at the company’s communications holistically. Firefighting anger at thousands of cancelled flights on social media is pointless if those people click onto Facebook and are served an ad waxing lyrical about the joys that await them when they embark on a holiday with your business.

Above the line ads can be harder to change at short notice but can usually be pulled or paused. While it’s a sunk cost it’s well worth taking the hit as it’ll be far better for your reputation in the long run.

Social advertising can be switched on and off or adapted with new messaging far more readily. You can also use your social ads to put out a more reactive message that speaks to the current situation.

Strive for online and offline consistency

By the same token do everything to ensure there is no disparity between your physical and digital customer service. Airports, holidays and general travel can be a highly emotional and stressful time and there’s little worse than not getting the answers or help you need. You may have successfully won over a customer on social media only to find they get poor customer service once they embark on their trip. When cancellations and delays occur it is imperative the company’s representatives on the ground are offering up to date, accurate information quickly and succinctly. As with socials, no mixed messages, no going out early with the wrong information and absolutely no false hope.

It is surprising how, when handled well, a poor travel experience can be contained as just that without being reflected back on the company. Being kind, calm, helpful and not in any way bolshy or patronising will be welcomed and often acknowledged when customers retell their story of holiday woe. Always remembering firstly how much is riding on you delivering a service for these people and secondly how awful it is for them to be let down will stand you in good stead. You can be sure when they are heading home from the airport having been turned away from a cancelled flight, that they are having a worse day than you.

Looking to the future

While issues such as cancelled flights (en masse) might be a PR disaster in the making, they are something that should be faced head on and not ignored or brushed under the carpet. Investing in a strategy and, if necessary, a workforce to address any such issue will be a very worthwhile expense. The ultimate goal is not to lose customers for life – it will be far more expensive to acquire new customers than to retain existing ones.

Indeed, to become known for providing polite and helpful customer service is no bad thing and perhaps that can be weaved into your comms six months down the line.

It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to airlines and bad headlines, today it is BA, tomorrow it will be someone else. Whether the story is related to cancellations, emissions, HR issues or ticket prices, the spotlight will swing elsewhere soon enough. So for now, invest in your customer service and take a considered, strategic approach to both your immediate and broader messaging.

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