Wednesday, July 6, 2011

What Happens When “Hearsay” Goes Viral and Global?

Gossip seems to travel faster than ever these days. When a rumor about a company picks up steam via Twitter or Facebook, it can send a PR division into a complete tizzy and overdrive on clarifications and retractions. With that kind of speed, companies have a rock-solid reason for finding social networking-savvy PR representation—unless they want to become a post-gaffe trending topic.

Even if a company has a huge budget for PR backing, crises can and will occur. Delta Air Lines, for example, which got hit hard after making a switch. The rumor? Delta and Saudi Arabian Airlines (SAA) joined forces, meaning that Jewish passengers couldn't board Saudi Arabia-bound flights. It began with an article published by WorldNetDaily, which spread to the Huffington Post. With headlines like USA Today's “Jews Not Able to Fly on Delta Flights to Saudi Arabia” (title since removed), things were not looking good for the largest airline in the world.

Delta could very easily have quashed the ill-intended rumors and clarified any controversy with a well thought out and timely statement. Instead, it seems that paralysis struck its crisis team – panic took over in the anti-Delta free-for-all, which lead The Economist to say that its efforts were “incomplete, unhelpful, and basically added fuel to the fire.” In any case, Delta's full response was submitted far too late to have any real effect - and that battle would be considered lost by any PR company.

For the record, Delta hasn't banned Jewish travelers. Saudi Arabian Airlines joined SkyTeam Alliance, so Delta will be offering tickets from SAA. As Saudi Arabia has their own visa requirements, some Israel-born Jews will have difficulty buying tickets, although this isn’t anything new - and there are workarounds. But does it matter anymore, considering how much negative feedback is still present on Delta's explanatory post?

It's not just Delta, of course. Facebook went under fire for changing its privacy policy, later switching it back after The Consumerist broke the story. In 2008, musician Dave Carroll claimed that United Airlines damaged his $3,500 guitar, which the airline refused to reimburse until he went all out on YouTube. Another PR issue of note happened in 2009 when Toyota's ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, offered $15,000 in prize money in a Toyota-sponsored video contest, and then proceeded to choose one considered not only sexist, but “lewd.” Despite public outcry, there wasn't much response from Toyota to smooth things over—and this drama claimed Get Satisfaction's blog's lowest rating. And then there was the safety issue… but that’s for another post.

Crisis or not, bad news moves fast regardless of whether ­truth has little weight in initial rumblings. That means that PR companies need to hustle a lot faster, have a crisis plan in place, and have crackerjack monitors watching (bad) buzz to deliver a swift attack right back. It might not be easy for every company to do this, but surely the world’s largest airline could spare a few team members to ward off boycotts, inflammatory headlines, and tweet storms that stretch for a week.

And before crisis management? How about trying some crisis prevention, front and center.

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