Qantas Airbus 380 emergency reveals social media challenges

Oh boy, this is what we in crisis communication in the age of citizen journalists and instant social media have been talking about. Today (10 Am Singapore time) a Qantas Airbus 380 mega-carrier on its way to Sydney had an explosion in an engine and made an emergency landing back in Singapore. While the plane was in the air, a passenger sitting at a window above the wing shot video with his cellphone clearly showing the increasing damage to the wing. The pilot can be heard explaining what is going on and what they are doing.

Meanwhile, twitter is going nuts with reports from passengers, including photos, being retweeted all over the place about the emergency landing.

So, here we have high drama being played out in real time with citizen journalists reporting. The question is, what is Qantas doing and how are they responding to the instant news?

Good thing: they have a Facebook page and Twitter account preset which they are using for marketing and customer relations.

Bad thing: They got the initial information completely wrong, they did not (and as of this writing) still have not tweeted anything about it. They did get a statement up on their website but I don’t know how long it took to do that. The statement did correct media reports saying the plane had crashed, however Reuters reported that Qantas told CNBC that the plane had crashed.

The other information they got wrong, according to this post on tnooz is that at the same time that Qantas was telling Australian media that no wreckage from the damage plane was found, there were photos showing up on Twitter (yfrog) that showed people on the island of Batam holding up pieces of wreckage with the Qantas logo on it.

The other thing that Qantas did very right was immediately ground all their brand spanking new Airbus 380s. You don’t want to have engines blowing up on brand new airplanes–actually, you don’t want that on really old airplanes either.

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 for these reasons:

– they didn’t communicate where the most active, relevant communication was happening–Twitter

– they provided at least some incorrect information early on. Even if I give them the benefit of the doubt and say the Reuters got it wrong, which I suspect, they still denied the existence of aircraft damage when the evidence was pretty clear.

What we have been saying here for a long time is: 1) Be fast or be irrelevant. Given the speed and failure to use Twitter to a large degree their communication became significantly less relevant. 2) Don’t lose credibility by inaccurate information.

What they should have done in the obviously hectic first hour or so of this event, is communicated on Twitter and through their website, Facebook, etc., that they are aware of the incident, they can confirm an engine problem and that as soon as they have additional information they can confirm they will publish it. At least they would have been part of the stream.

New York Times–defensive and silly in responding to Jon Stewart’s criticism

I’m no Jon Stewart fan, I must admit, but closer to it now after his stinging criticism of the news media at his “Restore the Sanity” rally at the Capital Mall on Oct. 30. Stephen Colbert joined in the fun which was supposed to be a response to Glenn Beck’s political rally earlier.

I won’t comment on the back and forth of political opinion makers here, but rather on the outrageously silly response of New York Times reporter David Carr regarding Stewart and Colbert’s attacks on the media.

Carr reports on the accusations of the two speakers against the news media for “keeping fear alive.” He quotes Stewart:

“’The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected dangerous, flaming ant epidemic,’ he said, to roars of approval from the crowd.”

Well said, in my view. But what does Carr think? Well, it is obvious to Carr that the comedians target is really only cable TV and then he makes the ridiculous assertion that nobody pays attention: “Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans.”

Mr. Carr clearly needs to get his head out of his New York office a little more. With the segmentation of media there is no question that audiences at any one particular time are small. But Carr seems to think that only his paper has any sway over public opinion.

What strikes me most is the underlying defensiveness, not just of Mr. Carr, but of the news media in general. I recall an editorial a week or so ago from a Florida newspaper haranguing BP CEO Bob Dudley for criticizing the media for hyping the spill impacts, reporting the projections of oil flowing to England. The paper acknowledged that it was one of those who heightened the fears but was absolutely unrepentant. Criticizing the CEO instead for even suggesting the media might have done anything wrong.

Business is mistrusted, the president is mistrusted, Congress is mistrusted–but none as much as the media. It is time that reporters and publishers of our treasured and extremely valuable press institutions like the New York Times stop being defensive, stop their silly reactions to serious criticism from comics, and take a long hard look inside. Why are they mistrusted? Maybe because in their pursuit of readers, all they seem to know to do is heighten the fear, anxiety and hatred of others.

“If we amplify everything, we hear nothing,” Jon Stewart said. I’m starting to think I like this guy.

Financial Times provides some solid crisis advice to Boards

Michael Skapinger, columnist for the Financial Times, provides some outstanding advice for companies and boards relating to BP.

Here’s a quick summary (with my comments):

1) Boards–pay attention: “First, a Deepwater Horizon lurks in every organisation. You do not need to be in a safety-critical industry, such as oil, chemicals or nuclear. Enron and Arthur Andersen were felled by fraud; Lehman Brothers by risky financial bets.”

The head-in-the-sand types will think that BP was somehow a terrible, rogue corporation. Most others are thinking–there but for the grace of God go I.

2) Accept responsibility: “BP did itself no good in the early days of the crisis by saying that, while the spill was its responsibility, it was not its accident because a subcontractor had been running the rig. This didn’t work, nor should it.”

I believe that BP overall did a pretty darn good job of accepting responsibility–despite the fact that now it is becoming more clear to everyone that the responsibility will not rest on them alone. Nevertheless, they sent mixed messages. A reflection no doubt of the deep tension between legal concerns and reputation concerns. That is a lesson most companies need to pay very close attention to.

3) Words matter: “Anyone could suffer the attention lapse that led to Mr Hayward making the unfortunate “I’d like my life back” remark. That is why you need to rehearse what you plan to say before you venture out. You do not want to be stiff or offer “no comments”. You want to be helpful, while measuring your words. It is not easy, but, as ever, the more you practise, the better you get.”

While Mr. Hayward made sure he was very visible and avoiding the “invisible CEO” charge laid against the CEO of Exxon in the other incident. But, there is a danger to the “rock star” media coverage of a CEO in the depths of a crisis. We all get tired, we say things off the cuff, we don’t always think through what we really mean to say, and once those words escape, you can’t take them back. Skapinger’s advice is absolutely on target.

4) Don’t complain about the media, because as Skapinger says: “That is the way it is. Blogs and Twitter keep up a relentless patter. But what really hurts is round-the-clock television. Those hours need to be filled with supposed experts who are expected to say what is happening before they can possibly be sure. It rankles with companies, but is not going to change. Far better to prevent the crisis happening in the first place.”

I agree it doesn’t do a lot of good to complain, but it is terribly important to understand how the media is going to treat an event like this. There is only one concern: get eyes on the screen. We saw the truth doesn’t matter, editorial control doesn’t matter, fairness doesn’t matter in the life and death battle for eyes. But what I do say is that when subjected to this kind of fully expected media coverage, you better be able and willing to challenge it. Instead of whining about the egregious reporting of oil flowing all the way to England, BP should have at the time been much more aggressive in challenging the worst of the “infotainment” reporting. They, and Unified Command, were far too silent about some of the ridiculous antics of the media in this event (anyone want to see more of Billy Nungesser?)