How British Airways forgot to communicate

The British Airways debacle, in which a systems wide failure crippled the airline and disrupted the travel plans of 75,000 passengers over the Bank Holiday weekend, has shone a spotlight once again onto companies’ dependence on technology. But just because the technology is not working, it does not mean that the communicating should stop or that staff should be left so completely ill-equipped to deal with the situation.

The facts are not in dispute. At 9.30 on Saturday morning, as passengers gathered at airports to depart for Bank Holiday breaks or half-term holidays, British Airways suffered a system-wide failure due, it is claimed, to a power surge. In of itself, that should not have proved a problem: all airlines operate identical systems at a separate site which power up when the primary source fails. But on this occasion, the reserve system also failed (which does sound like something has gone horribly wrong).

It was not long before passengers (and check in staff) realised something was awry. Kantar Media found that 3,815 tweets mentioning British Airways were posted between 9am and 10am on Saturday 27 May, rising to a peak of 9,688 between 11am and noon. (All told, 142,380 tweets about British Airways were posted between 27 and 28 May, which averages at 50 per minute.)

In effect, each one was asking ‘What is happening?’ The question went unanswered until British Airways’ relatively new chief executive Alex Cruz, who has already earned himself a reputation as a cost cutter, posted a video on the company’s website and Twitter account with a brief explanation.

Forget the fact that he was wearing a high visibility jacket (an item of clothing derided mercilessly by the media – both traditional and social), Cruz explained the situation, told passengers that he would update them when he had something further to say, and then suggested they check British Airways’ website and Twitter account for further information. (They’d have been waiting a long time: it was another day, before a four-tweet message was posted, offering some information, followed shortly thereafter by another video from Cruz, although this time thankfully without the high vis nonsense!)

It's the response that matters

As Jonathan Hemus, crisis consultant at Insignia, says, nobody expects an organisation to be immune to a crisis, but they do expect it to respond well. It took less than an hour after learning that Air Asia Flight 8501 had crashed in December 2014 for chief executive Tony Fernandes to start communicating, with arguably minimal information; shortly afterwards he boarded a flight to Surabaya, where most of the passengers were from, to offer support, comfort and connect with relatives and staff. The humility of his approach (the tweets carried typos) and his willingness to make himself available to all, including the media, meant that, while the news was devastating, Fernandes escaped censure.

British Airways’ system may have gone down, but its social media accounts and website were up and running. They were just devoid of information. Until Cruz’ video appearance, the company did not release a single message telling customers that they knew something had gone wrong. In fact, by lunchtime on Saturday, customers were tweeting that they had read on the BBC’s website that journalists had been briefed that it was unlikely any flight would depart until 6pm that day. The BBC’s website. Not the company’s own website.

Customers were in the dark, and that’s certainly not a great idea in the age of social media. Ask any crisis communications consultant: if you don’t say something, even if it is just that you are still working on the problem, you can be sure others will fill the gap. Customers’ tweets and images became prime fodder for journalists.

Keeping staff up to date

Equally as important were British Airways’ staff, left to deal with customers without any information. Ah, that’s the fault of those blasted systems! Is it? How did we communicate in the days before technology? We used the basics. In the aftermath of 7/7, when the mobile phone network was suspended temporarily, communications officials used megaphones and good old fashioned notice boards to issue safety messages to staff in central London offices. In the wake of 9/11, when mobile networks and transport systems were crippled, Morgan Stanley sent staff to visit the homes of every employee working within the vicinity of the Twin Towers to check that they had managed to escape.

British Airways’ headquarters is not that far from Terminal 5 at Heathrow: couldn’t somebody have been despatched to provide information to a central office, or to pick up the landline and call the BA office at Gatwick? Maybe that happened, but the key message coming from passengers was the lack of information. If staff had information, no matter how scant, surely it would have been imparted? Instead it seems that they didn’t, and vented their frustrations, prompting Cruz to send an email to all staff warning they were either ‘part of the team working to fix this or you aren’t’ – oh look, company-wide emails were working! (When your staff will be your greatest brand ambassadors rebuilding your reputation for customer service in the aftermath of this crisis, this is perhaps not the best way to motivate them.)

As PLMR’s senior consultant Joe Mitton says: ‘In reputation crisis situations, having pre-agreed systems of internal staff communications really show their value. These are the moments companies need to have a ready-made plan for getting the right messages, updates and options out to all staff – especially those answering queries from frustrated customers.’

It took three days before Cruz finally made non-scripted appearances, when he was grilled by the media. In truth, he had little new information to disseminate, and certainly nothing so ground breaking that he couldn’t have shared extra titbits over the previous two days. Academic studies consistently suggest that the sooner a chief executive (or senior company executive) emerges after a crisis, apologises and answers questions candidly, the swifter the recovery trajectory of a company’s reputation.

Will this debacle result in permanent damage to British Airways’ reputation? It is unlikely. But it should permanently change the company’s communications strategy, which is taciturn to say the least in the event of incidents. It should also jolt the company to do proper crisis scenario planning. Did nobody ever think the unthinkable: that both systems could go down?

However, some passengers will be deterred from flying the airline again. People travel for a variety of reasons, but often there is an occasion – a chance to make memories – such as a wedding, a celebratory party or even a funeral. Those memories can’t be replaced. And the all-important business class passengers, who are the lifeblood of any airline, may reconsider. They require an airline to deliver them to their destinations, without fuss or delay: British Airways failed on both counts over last Bank Holiday weekend.