New dynamics of crisis management


Social media change the dynamics of crisis management. Here's our newest case study, already in progress.

Passengers on American Airlines flight 1348 from San Francisco to Dallas spent hours on the ramp in Austin instead. They—along with other jets—were diverted to Austin last Friday because of strong storms over Dallas. The problem is, Austin's airport and American weren't prepared to handle the ensuing mess in Austin. And it was a big mess.

Passengers spent hours in deteriorating conditions before finally getting off the plane that night. The airport was in its closed-for-the-night mode when they got in, so they remained hungry (after 12 hours or more on the plane). The airline had virtually no staff to take care of the passengers stranded in the wrong city, and the airline didn't seem to have any management involvement to fix things. The details provide a convincing argument against holiday air travel, but let's move along.

This is obviously a big problem for American. First, you have direct consequences. Northwest Airlines settled a class action for $7.1 million after it made passengers wait hours on grounded planes in Detroit in 1999. The lawyers will go to work on this one, too.

Second, American has a traditional PR problem, which I'll define as what happens when the media make the public aware of something the company has done wrong (or at least badly). The Wall Street Journal printed a lengthy story today—page one, above the fold. Lots of details to make readers want to avoid flying American. I imagine it will be in local papers everywhere by Tuesday.

Third—and here's the social media angle—this isn't 1999. Passengers were talking to the media while still on the plane. I wonder how many pictures they took with those cell phones? But that's speculative. Look at how they're already using social media:

Austin American-Statesman reporter Helen Anders has been writing about flight 1348 on her blog on the newspaper's site. Passengers are adding lengthy comments to her posts. They're adding details of what happened, some worse than in news reports. Passenger Kate Hanni posted her contact details and invited other passengers to contact her (presumably to coordinate lawsuits). She also criticized the local CBS station for not using her interview in their coverage. Oh, and she's in touch with her congressman. How much did American save by denying her a hotel voucher?

Today's lessons:

  1. Blogs can give anyone a voice, even non-bloggers. Comments on an easy-to-find blog can become a platform for angry customers.

  2. Angry customers can use social media to organize themselves against you.

  3. Mobile phones give customers access to mainstream media now.

  4. Camera phones are everywhere (and digital cameras are standard issue for vacations). If anything visually interesting happened on those planes, someone probably took pictures. Don't be surprised if they pop up on photo-sharing sites soon.
This story has been a creature of traditional media until now. It'll be interesting to see how much of the passenger perspective comes out through new channels.

Update: The passengers have a blog to go with their new organization (via Andy Lark).



Social media has given the public an immediate resource for gaining information and dispersing information. In an instance like this where it is apparent that the situation has been sensationalized in response to all the social media information out there, do you think it's a blessing or a curse?
What is your preference: crisis management in 1999 or 2007?

I'm not convinced that the availability of social media added much to the story. I think the details were pretty well established in the original reporting. What changed was the ability of the passengers to get their own stories out, and to find each other after they left the airport.

From the customer's perspective, I much prefer the current environment. From the company's perspective, I'm sure this is more difficult, at least for relatively minor issues that might have gone unnoticed before.

However, another one of my personal themes is to educate people about the intelligence value of online information. The crisis management environment is only one aspect of how social media change things. Other changes are less risky, but still powerful.

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About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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