Friday, August 12, 2011

Backtracking: A PR Lesson From Airbnb

Have you been following the Airbnb PR disaster unfold? I first started following Airbnb last year when I discovered the site as I was looking for apartments to rent while travelling for business. Great idea, easy to use interface and an honest feel to the site – unlike the thoroughly dodgy HomeAway and other barely cobbled together vacation rental sites which have always left me feeling on my own.

Airbnb promised something different and judging from the investment community pumping in over $100 million and a crazy valuation of $1 billion-plus, others got that feeling too… until a few weeks ago, that is, when Airbnb tried to cover up some rather nasty news about a customer whose home had been violated and ransacked by renters.

Shit happens. A lot. But it’s how you deal with the crap that can turn those, er, negative moments into somewhat better ones. And it’s never a good idea to try covering up a mess – like we’ve seen with the News of the World phone-tapping scandals or when you have a very influential blogger on your tail, and especially if that blogger’s name is Michael Arrington.

Arrington, a man who’s known not to mince words, called Airbnb's response “tepid,” noting how supremely disturbed victim “EJ” was after finding her home ransacked and looted—so much so that she plans on moving. Arrington pointed out the how inadequate Airbnb's policy was, noting that, at the time of the incident, their only FAQ about theft stated: “Grand pianos weigh thousands of pounds and do not fit through doors.”

Things could have gone differently from there. Arrington's post detailing Airbnb PR issues could have been (and should have been) met by a thoughtful company response, updated policies, and detailed reparation information. Yes, Airbnb responded on TechCrunch, rather airily, but that response only materialized due to media pressure and public outcry. It was an attempt - a very late one - to make amends, and their efforts were almost immediately overshadowed by Y Combination founder and Airbnb investor Paul Graham. Graham called Arrington's report “bullshit” and insisted that Airbnb was doing all they could to help the victim—even though it was already weeks later. The name-calling, the hedging, the references to unverified information:this is exactly what taints even the most sincere of PR responses.

Arrington backed up his sources and soldiered on, proving that bloggers with conviction can get companies to change policies, make amends, and tighten up customer response practices. I’m glad to see some good come out of it for the sake of the victim – and future Airbnb customers. It’s still disappointing though that Airbnb never had a crisis management plan in place, particularly for a company whose business model relies on stranger-to-stranger interaction.

Airbnb says that it is “improving” security and service, and that's a no-brainer—they should have been improved before any of this happened. It's true that company missteps provide opportunities to learn, but Airbnb should have known that, statistically speaking, this was in the cards. (Actually, a similar situation had already occurred.)

What Airbnb should improve beyond all security measures next is how even their investors deal with the public. Here's hoping that they take every one of these suggestions seriously.

Oh, and thank you Michael Arrington for making companies like these accountable.

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