Allegiant Airlines, the Las-Vegas based budget airline, is currently under fire after 60 Minutes aired an investigative report about poor safety ratings relating to its use of the MD-80 aircraft and centered on a culture that allegedly put safety behind profits.
The fallout has been swift and powerful. Shares of the airline fell 3 percent just one day after the story aired. Many vowed on social media to never fly the airline again after sharing the news story with their followers. Experts and consultants have taken a more “wait and see approach” and some have gone on record saying peoples’ love of travel and their need for low-cost flight options will outweigh any serious financial harm to the company. It’s clear, however, Allegiant has suffered serious reputational damage that could last long after the social chatter dies down.
While the airline has publicly responded harshly to the news story, going so far as to have its top executives declare in a statement that the 60 Minutes piece is “false narrative,” they are losing the PR battle.
Let’s face it, investigative journalism is nothing new – think Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post who uncovered the Watergate crimes that resulted in the indictments of 40 administrative officials and the historic resignation of President Richard Nixon. Or, more recently, the Boston Globe’s investigation into cover ups by the Catholic Church of sexual abuse by priests, a story brought to life in the critically acclaimed 2015 movie, Spotlight.
If Hollywood movies are made of such investigative pieces, it’s obvious that much work goes into putting the reports together in the first place. In a news story, CBS News indicated the 60 Minutes Allegiant investigation was done over seven months. Executives at the airline surely weren’t surprised by the story. They declined CBS’ request for participation and instead provided a brief statement before the story aired.
So, what could the leaders at Allegiant have done instead? Let’s review a few communications options that might have balanced the story and portrayed them in a more positive light.
1. Allegiant could have participated in the story.
It’s never an easy decision to join a conversation with a news organization that seems to have pre-written a story — even identifying their villain. However, by not sharing its side of the story, Allegiant allowed only one side to be shared. Crisis media training to prep for tough but necessary interviews is worth the time and financial investment and Allegiant clearly had the time to prepare. There are consultants and trainers, many of them former journalists, who focus on helping executives learn the ins and outs of interviewing, especially in high-stakes situations.
2. Allegiant could have gotten in front of the story.
If they knew the premise of the investigation and the direction of the story, Allegiant executives could have gathered their facts, prepared messaging and pre-empted 60 Minutes by reaching out to a CBS competitor and offering their side. While it seems a stretch, and maybe even impractical, this could have been an opportunity to announce Allegiant was planning to speed up the planned retirement of the jets in question. Since Allegiant’s safety record significantly improved as more of these jets were retired, this would have provided a new story line and one that focused on the very near future rather than the past record.
3. Allegiant could have responded in person.
It’s not a surprise to us that Allegiant’s internal memo to employees about the 60 Minutes story was leaked to the media and shared in its entirety. Allegiant’s external response and internal memo should have complemented each other and been timed more appropriately. Additionally, a written statement, while a useful method of responding in some situations, might not have been the best choice in this instance. When talking about safety, especially when it’s not in direct response to a lawsuit, putting a human face and voice to a statement through a video or a speech has much more impact than words on paper. This would have helped convey proper tone, authenticity and transparency of Allegiant’s leadership. Instead, they appeared bitter and defensive. Not the best image.
In this case, the crisis was known, and even if it wasn’t, it could have been predicted and planned for in a crisis communications plan. Maybe they did have one – in fact, it would be shocking to believe they didn’t. What is also shocking is how they’ve responded to a negative news story they’ve known about for several months. If there’s anything to be learned from this example, it’s to take advantage of information, coordinate messaging and to manage the situation in person, not just via written statements. There is nothing to be gained in hiding behind a paragraph when talking about peoples’ lives.
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Hollie Geitner is Vice President, Client Services at WordWrite. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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