Does it matter that Asiana’s PR sucks?

Wall Street Journal ran a blog yesterday talking about how bad Asiana’s PR is in the wake of the pilot-induced crash in San Francisco. They made the point that the CEO rebuffed communication experts in the US who wanted to help if the crash aftermath and stuck with its South Korean team. An Asiana representative said, “It’s not the proper time to manage the company’s image.”

That’s quite a remarkable statement.  If the hours, minutes, days and weeks following a horrible crash, caused by an inexperienced pilot, is not the proper time to manage a company’s image, when is? The old adage about a crisis representing both risk and opportunity is very true, I believe. Trust can be built despite horrible circumstances, so it does matter greatly.

Which doesn’t mean that Asiana is in trouble because they won’t use a US PR firm or consultant. The company’s CEO, Yoon Young-doo, is in San Francisco now. That in itself demonstrates far better than words the way in which the company is dealing with this.

It raises the question for me–what constitutes a crisis these days? I sense that it is changing, and that is a very significant question for one of the greatest issues in crisis planning and preparation is the issue of triggers. How do you evaluate an event and its severity so that the communication response is appropriate. Since speed is so essential, the assessment has to happen fast as well. Do and say too little, and reputation can take a big hit. After all, the most common post-crisis analysis consists of “too little, too late.” However, do too much and you create or exacerbate a crisis unnecessarily. Communication advisors or staffers who in retrospect throw fuel on a fire may very well find themselves being baggage handlers instead of executive handlers.

Let me give you an example of the changing nature of crises and therefore crisis response. About 2-3 years ago, Dominos Pizza was in major crisis mode after a foolish employee did disgusting things to pizza and posted the video of it on YouTube. Now, it seems there is a video of the young and stupid fast food employees doing something disgusting on YouTube almost every day. When crises become every day occurrences they no longer count as crises. While companies still need to respond to such activity, the response needs to be measured, and measured by the degree of virality and public reaction.

There were a number of people on social media following the accident who said they’d never fly again. Understandable reaction, to some degree, particularly when the horrible image of the plane’s tail hitting the seawall was captured on video and played ten thousand times on cable. But, does this mean it is a crisis for the airline industry? And what about Asiana? Will their business decline significantly as a result of this crash? Even more to the point, will it decline because their PR isn’t meeting our high standards of sympathetic crisis response?

I doubt it. People know in their brains, if not their guts, that flying is safe, in fact the safest mode of transport there is. If they want or need to fly, they will. Whether they choose Asiana or United depends mostly on the route, timing and price. True enough, I will avoid Allegiant Airlines at practically all costs because of my very negative experience with them.  But, except for those 300 or so people on board, most have not had a negative experience with Asiana, nor are they hearing a ton of stories about what a horrible, unsafe airline it is.

So, was the Asiana executive right in saying now is not the proper time to manage a company’s image? No, but the fault is in their faulty understanding of how a reporter and us PR types would react to that statement. If they mean, as I suspect they do, now is the time to focus on the passengers and families of those who survived the crash and those who did not, get about the business of understanding what happened, do what is necessary and prudent to make sure it doesn’t happen again, and communicate openly about all of this, they are not wrong at all.