Qantas and The Long Haul of a Crisis

Truthfully, I haven’t been following the Qantas/Rolls Royce ordeal that closely. As with everything, though, there is something we can learn from the bad luck of others. And what I’ve learned from this situation is that crisis communication is a marathon, even when it looks very much like a sprint.

I really enjoyed Gerald Baron’s post on how social media complicates crisis response in the days after the initial incident. The gist of the article is that Qantas really screwed up the first few hours of the response:

What’s the bottom line? Qantas had done so many things right in terms of preparation, but overall would get probably get a C- to F grade in this event[.]

Now contrast that with this article, published in MarketingWeek last week:

For starters, the past three weeks have witnessed a masterful demonstration of crisis management. As soon as the A380 emergency hit, [Qantas CEO Alan] Joyce took direct control. It was a lightning quick response and one in which he immediately placed the emphasis on the aircraft’s Rolls-Royce engines and not on Qantas’ service record.

…and…

Joyce is going to build brand equity from the crisis, not just recover it. Students of PR will know this as the famed “Tylenol 180” strategy named after the painkiller brand that not only recovered from a poisoning scandal in the Eighties but went on to increase sales and brand equity as a result of the way it handled the subsequent fallout.

How is it possible that these two articles are talking about the same situation? Besides the fact that one is negative and the other positive, they even describe the initial response differently!

While I would tend to agree with Mr. Baron’s interpretation, I think that the MarketingWeek article implies something that isn’t always noted. Good PR can act as a deodorant. It’s preferable to follow the first, right, credible mantra, but if that fails, and you’re willing to take some pretty significant risks (like grounding a fleet of A380 jets), you can get the public and media to move beyond those first few moments when you tripped up.

Beyond that idea of fixing poor initial communication, we should understand that even after the rush of media interest, the story continues. Until every last one of those A380s are back in the air, the story can come back with a vengeance. Qantas CEO Joyce, I think, understands this and has continued to work to repair the situation. Much like a marathon, it’s not over after the first mile, no matter how far ahead—or behind—you are.

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