Not closing the airport right away, failing to engage customers or the press and having no system to SMS or email people has been BA’s undoing

British Airways isn’t the first company to suffer an IT failure. But with its occurrence midway through one of the busiest travelling days of the year, it has been one of the most visibly effected. While Tesco Bank’s hack or NatWest’s debit card failure were frustrating for customers, neither threatened the reputational damage as the current crisis being played out on broadcast and social media.

In any crisis, a company should be seeking to protect its brand – both during and after the event. There are various inter-linked ways to do this that involve having pre-writhe scenario plans, taking decisive decisions, being clear with your customers and importantly, the press. Above all else, ensuring the welfare and safety of customers is paramount – yet this did not appear to be one of BA’s core messages.

From my own time working at Heathrow’s media chief and from years spent advising numerous high profile firms with Blackstock Consulting, the company I set up after leaving BAA, it’s startling to see the similar mistakes companies make in engaging people. Much of my team’s day-to-day work at Blackstock Consulting is around building up and helping protect brands in the property sector, both with customers and a B2B/political audience. The challenge we always have is explaining that real engagement is about conversation – not hiding and not chest banging.

Blackstock is known for being pretty straight-talking and for not taking a cookie-cutter approach as most big agencies do.

In a crisis, you have to be more visible than ever but you also have to have invested heavily in preparing contingency plans to ensure you are operationally fit and have the resources on tap should you need them. This is costly, but not as costly as being caught short.

What the BA saga shows is a lack of operational preparedness – which isn’t the direct fault of the communications team who would be working round-the-clock to help manage the crisis.

As I noted in my initial reaction on the BBC on Saturday evening, BA’s indecisiveness over telling people not to come caused a heap of hassle for everyone. They initially said some flights may depart after 6pm Saturday which turned out to not be the case.

By the time Tuesday arrived, the story was still rolling. This was my interview on Sky News with Kay Burley on the channel’s afternoon news slot – four days into the saga.

With recent IT failures affecting major American airlines such as Southwestern and Delta over the last year (something its press office should been briefing more proactively), BA isn’t the first airline to have these issues. But it’s by far the most high profile, given these occurred at its hub, Terminal 5, on such a hectic holiday getaway.

Operationally, BA should have done several key things:

  1. It should have had clear processes to communicate in such a situation, perhaps by storing basic contact information on a separate server enabling it to use third-party texting or emailing tools to contact customers quickly in a crisis. It keeps all these data and there would be no legal issue with this whatsoever.
  2. It should have sent boots on the ground to the airport terminals to engage customers. By engage, I mean look after and soak up some of the anger. When there is no fix for a situation, being able to shout at someone is the next best thing. The thing that annoys people the most is being told nothing.
  3. It should have had a clear “decant” process to move people out of the airport, either to local hotels or back to train stations. Had this been marshalled properly, much hassle and cost could have been saved.
  4. Its failure to control things has led to the story rolling on all over the long weekend. The media coverage has gotten more negative as time has gone on and journalists have become more hostile due to the company holding back from engaging with them.

From a communications perspective, the company should have:

  1. Been decisive in telling people whether to go or not go to the airport, rather than saying flights after 6pm are unaffected. Someone should have shot down this statement for being vague and confusing.
  2. Been visible much earlier, even if to say, “We are sorry. We don’t know what’s going, but we’re working hard to find out and we’ll do everything we can to put it right.”
  3. Better engaged the media to keep them onside. As with customer engagement, this sometimes means sending someone in to take flack and get shouted at. Not doing this can be interpreted as having contempt for the media and your stakeholders – which can only exacerbate a situation.
  4. Prepared answers to some of the questions that were always likely to be asked in this situation. Rather than leave a void of misinformation it could have briefed this, even off the record, to friendly places avoiding the stand-off it now has with the unions.

As it faces up to a bill likely to exceed £100m the company should focus hard on assessing the residual effects on its brand of what has happened. Refunding people for the total costs incurred (of hotel, travel and food) won’t be enough. Vouchers will cost them a fortune, but a swift announcement of an independent enquiry may build confidence back up.

A six-point check-list for companies facing down crisis:

  1. Plan for things to go wrong and even if you can’t have pre-planned solutions, have mitigation in place
  2. Prioritize safety and well-being (of customers and staff) above everything
  3. Engage your customers and be proactive with the media.
  4. Be totally consistent in your message to customers, press, shareholders, politicians – EVERYONE
  5. Be decisive in assessing the nature of the crisis and give a timeline for further communication thus controlling the story.
  6. Take quick actions to neutralize negativity and have planned responses in place to make that easier.