We live in in a topsy-turvy, hyper-sensitive era, where photos of staff playing the fool get a public treatment worse than dangerous malfunctions that risk lives.
AirNZ declared itself “appalled” at photos on social media of a pilot kissing a blow-up doll and video of a flight attendant spitting water, and taking the issue “extremely seriously”. It launched an investigation. The CEO apologised on video. It stood staff down. Staff resigned.
Earlier this year there was a small flurry of “smoke in cockpit” stories. Social media was flooded with photos and stories of worried passengers. AirNZ’s public response was to note that the flight was cancelled due to “engineering issues”.
In November last year, when baggage handling system failed, social media was swamped with photos and stories of bothered passengers. AirNZ simply thanked “customers for their patience while it has worked to resolve the issue”.
These were incidents directly affecting the service, experience and impressions of customers and the public. Few were affected by the social media images.
Social media incidents that really affect customer trust are like those experienced by Dominos in 2009, when staff videoed themselves spitting on pizza.
In these times, when emotions appear to trump reality, PR has to help organisations find balance and proportion in their management of incidents.
Clash of values
The AirNZ situation raises an intriguing PR challenge in weighing up which values a company should express during a crisis.
AirNZ came down hard on the staff involved. It launched an investigation. It stood staff down. It talked about how these particular staff had let thousands of other staff down.
But this is an era where staff-love is a value worn on LinkedIn heart-sleeves. Smiling, fun loving staff are turned into marketing gimmicks. Being a cool, chilled-out place to work earns awards.
So the PR question is: should we be worried more by customers seeing staff simply playing the fool, or by the public seeing staff hunted down and shamed because of it?
Maybe we can handle both. Maybe we can use the opportunity to live the value of staff-love by shrugging and saying we understand the need for staff to let off steam, but urge them to be more careful about where and how.