Interesting discussion about Qantas and their communication lapses relating to the engine failure. Interesting in part because BBC London just called asking me to participate in their evening news show tonight by satellite uplink to comment on Qantas and more specifically, Rolls Royce and their quickly emerging reputation challenges. (Unfortunately, a speaking engagement and lack of satellite uplink equipped studios in the backwater where I live look to prevent me from participating tonight.)
However, I can still express my opinion about Rolls Royce as well as comment back on the pushback I got on my comments about Twitter. Let’s start with that.
The rather firm rebuttal I got, from such esteemed crisis comms folks like J.D, have to do with the role that Twitter plays. The comments back were in essence that Twitter is not that significant given the relatively small audience and particularly globally. My comment about it being the “fastest and more relevant” was particularly dismissed. Here’s why I think it is: the news media. If the Twitter audience consisted only of people wanting to know who’s drinking what kind of latte at what Starbucks stand, I would agree. But Twitter is the new global police scanner. I was redundant when I said “fastest and most relevant” because in an instant news world where immediacy is everything, fast is only thing that is relevant. You can’t get faster than people sitting on airplane tweeting, or shooting pictures from the hole in the wing why they are still trying to land, or people tweeting images of debris that just landed on their heads on an island. This is where the news media will get their news and they will run with it.
Look back to ancient history–USAirways ditching in the Hudson. The world knew about it via Twitter and twitpic an hour before any word came from the airline.
Qantas’ problems were: 1) news media (Reuters) reported that Qantas reported the plane had crashed. True? Who knows? 2) Qantas denied debris falling at the same time that the news media were publishing photos from yfrog showing residents of the island of Batam holding up debris from the plane. 3) Qantas did not use Twitter to address the rumors and reports. They did get a statement up on their website relatively quickly–and that’s good. But for the news media tuning in to Twitter for the latest updates, Qantas should have been there.
That being said, I also commented that I didn’t think Qantas’ reputation would be damaged by this. They immediately grounded the A380s–good thing. They also found some small oil leaks in other A380 engines. Plus, had another engine problem force a return of a flight a couple of days later, this time a 747, but also with a Rolls Royce engine.
So we turn to Rolls Royce. Tweeting or not, the impact of these engine problems is likely to be serious for Rolls Royce. Stock has already taken a beating on it, as the reports of more engine problems discovered by Qantas hit the news. When a report like this happens, the media (and the public) look for patterns. Is this an anomaly? Are there bigger problems than one engine? The news media and bloggers will dig very hard to find these patterns, a history of problems, because that is the big question the public wants to know. They are asking: am I safe if I fly in a plane with a Rolls Royce engine? Right now, every problem with a Rolls Royce engine is being researched. It is completely predictable that a series of reports will come out showing a pattern of problems, and then we will see ex-employees or “safety experts” being interviewed saying “they were warned but they put profits above safety.” This is simply the pattern. Unfortunately for Rolls Royce, there are some suggestions that problems with the Trent 900 engine are too common. Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner has been delayed, some reports suggesting, because of this same engine.
Rolls Royce appears to be aggressive in addressing this at this stage with reports this morning of “progress being made” in identifying the problem(s) behind the Qantas engine failure. But I sense a rough road ahead for them. Even if their history of engine problems is no worse or even better than competitors. It’s just the pattern of public concern fed by news media “pattern creation” that is their real risk.
What can they do? Do the right things and communicate them well. The right thing is to make double darn sure those fancy new huge engines are safe. And they better tell us everything they are doing to make sure they are safe. They also better be prepared to aggressively defend their safety record, their policies, their culture. But, prepare for the storm anyway.