Peter Jones, communications consultant and former head of media at British Airways, considers the fall-out from BA’s Bank Holiday IT systems meltdown
Three days after what was described by one national newspaper as “the greatest IT meltdown of all time” British Airways was operating 95% of its normal flight programme.
Within another 24 hours, the airline said it was flying a full programme. However, commentators were saying it was far from business as usual.
The airline has had a torrid time since a power surge caused damage to its servers and took down its entire computer system, stranding thousands of passengers, generating acres of negative coverage and, according to commentators, lawyers and brand experts, doing incalculable damage to its reputation.
Big business knows that major incidents are an inevitable part of life. Whether they lead to lasting reputational damage depends on a number of things: whether the business has a robust crisis plan; whether that plan is implemented properly; the communications with key stakeholders during the crisis; and how much credit the company has in the reputation bank when the crisis strikes.
BA is a mature organisation well used to the vicissitudes of life. One has to assume that it has a robust, well thought through crisis plan.
However, the magnitude of the IT failure will have tested any plan to the limit.
BA’s staff are among the most experienced in the business and we have to assume there was no lack of human resource to throw at the problem.
We have to ‘assume’ this, however, because at the critical time there was a distinct lack of an authoritative, credible spokesman on mainstream media to reassure us that this was the case.
We don’t know why. There may be several reasons – among them the following:
A corporate resistance to appearing above the parapet – experts will argue this is a fundamental shortcoming for any customer-facing business.
The absence of a willing management representative (see above). No-one likes being grilled by the media. It is rarely a comfortable or rewarding experience in a situation such as experienced by BA. But at a certain level within an organisation, it comes with the territory.
That person should not necessarily be determined by a company’s organisation chart. If the top man or woman can do it, so much the better, but whoever it is, he or she needs to be seen on the ground and be credible and authentic.
A spokesman saying from an office at a safe distance that “We are doing everything we can to help our customers” doesn’t cut it, particularly if your holiday, re-union, business trip or wedding has just been wrecked.
Sometimes the appropriate candidate will complain they have nothing to say. Wrong.
Those with long memories will recall the Kegworth air crash when a British Midland Boeing 737 making an emergency landing at East Midlands landed short and ended up against the M1 embankment, killing 47 people and injuring 74.
The BMI boss at the time Michael Bishop could have argued he had little positive he could say, but by the evening news he was on site being interviewed, promising to discover why the accident happened.
There is always something you can say if it is well thought out, honest and delivered with authenticity.
It is a mistake to believe that because you are saying nothing, nothing will be said.
There are a multitude of vested interests and justifiably angry people who will be happy to fill the vacuum you have left.
That means you will be chasing the agenda, not driving it – which can make the process of recovery even more challenging.
The reputational credit argument revolves around how much attention you have paid to your reputation in good times.
Of course, part of that is service delivery. But it is also to do with how you have managed your image with positive news when you have it.
There is less incentive to put effort in that direction when things are going well and there is no burning platform.
But if you are not putting positive stuff out, the bad news – when it comes – joins up in the public mind with the last piece of bad news in a single, seamless stream.
Think of an empty house. If someone puts a brick through the window and it isn’t repaired, the next person along might break another one, then the drainpipes disappear, then the door and before you know it you have a wreck.
As for that crucial recovery phase, it is too soon to know what plans BA has.
Restoring people’s bank balance with compensation is one thing. Restoring the balance of public reputation is another.
What is certain is that there are millions of people who believe in BA. Its task now is to give us the reassurance that this belief is not misplaced.
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