John Bailey – GoCrisis Senior Vice President
In today’s “always on” media landscape, an organisation’s ability to communicate quickly and effectively in a fast-moving crisis requires activating all online and offline channels to ensure a consistent and integrated response across every touchpoint. This is particularly important after an event which causes loss of life, when the organisation needs to quickly acknowledge and react to the human tragedy and to demonstrate genuine empathy and compassion for those affected.
This includes both the language used in public statements and the visual branding which appears on the website or on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or (in China) Weibo. As news begins to spread of an airline accident, for example, one of the first places families and friends of passengers will probably look for information is the airline’s website or social media pages, or alternatively to news sites which may in turn link to the website or Twitter feed. If it is already confirmed that this was a major accident with fatalities, families should not be confronted with colourful promotional messaging or photos of smiling faces on the landing page.
IATA’s “Best Practice” guidelines on Crisis Communication recommend that airlines immediately change their online branding to monochrome after an accident with fatalities, an approach which has now become standard in other sectors such as hospitality. After the terror attacks in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo on Easter Sunday 2019, two of the three hotels struck by suicide bombers greyed out their home pages and posted factual information about what had occurred, together with numbers which families could call for information. The third hotel, maintained its normal colourful branding and images of a property which was by now badly damaged in the explosion. Even then, one of the hotels which had changed its website overlooked its Facebook and Twitter pages, which continued to show the usual photos of smiling guests, employees and pristine hotel facilities, including the restaurant attacked by the bomber.
This reflects the difficulty of ensuring a consistent response across multiple touchpoints when ownership of communication channels may be fragmented, particularly in a complex or dispersed organisation. For many consumer-facing businesses, the website is an essential sales platform, and is usually “owned” by the commercial team, whose priority is to continue generating revenues, whereas the concern of the communications department is to protect brand and reputation. Resolving these conflicting priorities requires careful planning and coordination before the crisis strikes. Similarly, organisations which maintain multiple market-specific websites should have a procedure for over-riding the local administrator from head office in an emergency. This ensures that all sites associated with the organisation can be changed to appropriate branding simultaneously, as Lufthansa Group did after the Germanwings tragedy in 2015.
When Southwest Airlines suffered the first fatal event in its history in April 2018, it quickly executed a plan known internally as “Code Blue”, changing the visual branding on every online touchpoint, including its mobile booking app, to monochrome blue. The accident was caused by an uncontained engine failure which killed a passenger sat next to a window shattered by engine debris, the first fatality on a US airline in nine years. Southwest was acutely aware of how quickly an event like this could escalate on social media, and had carefully planned an online-first communication response. In the event, a passenger used the onboard wifi service to broadcast live footage from the aircraft cabin on Facebook Live – the first time live images of an aviation emergency had been streamed on the internet.
Southwest’s ability to mobilise its online channels as the primary source of information emphasized the importance of preparation, particularly in developing a “dark site” which can be activated immediately in an emergency. This does not replace the entire website, which can still be used to make bookings. But the usual landing page is overlayed with a new screen, usually in grey scale, which omits any promotional messages or images and contains information about the accident, together with links to further information. As the response develops, updated statements can be posted to the new home page, with links to other material such as video statements from the CEO posted on YouTube.
The website should also be used to signal the gradual transition back to “business as usual”, but this must be done sensitively and in stages to avoid creating a perception that the organisation is rushing to “move on” from the crisis. Companies such as Lufthansa, FlyDubai and Air Asia each took several weeks to transition back to their normal online branding after fatal events. Following the loss of an Air Asia Indonesia Airbus A320 in 2014, AirAsia Group monitored the extent of media coverage and social media sentiment country by country before it slowly transitioned its country-specific websites back to their normal branding, starting with unaffected markets (countries such as Japan, which had no citizens on board flight QZ8501) before eventually restoring the website for Indonesia and the group website hosted in Malaysia. Southwest transitioned its online branding over the course of a week, having lost one passenger on flight 1380. Even then, the airline consulted with the victim’s family and monitored social media sentiment carefully to ensure it was transitioning sensitively and with utmost consideration.
Ensuring that the organisation is ready to mobilise its online communication channels, including the website, as part of a coordinated and holistic response to a crisis is now an essential part of crisis planning and preparation. In the worst case, failure to acknowledge the human tragedy by continuing to show colourful promotional messages or smiling faces on the main website is likely to offend families who have lost loved ones, and leave the organisation open to accusations of being insensitive or disrespectful.