An Ode to Management.

by Roger Pynn

A crisis can be many things.  It doesn’t have to involve loss of life or violence or cataclysmic forces of nature.  If your business screws up and people are disaffected, you’ve got a crisis on your hand.  How you communicate during the crisis will play a critical role in recovery.  How well you planned for handling a crisis will likely dictate how well you communicate.  More importantly, training people to manage in a crisis trumps it all.

I waited more than a week before writing this post to make sure I wasn’t writing as an angry consumer over an incident while traveling on vacation.  Instead, I wanted to use the experience to reinforce the basic importance of both planning and management in crisis communication.  Planning without active management involvement in implementation is useless.

When we buy an airplane ticket I suppose we’re admitting our insanity … letting someone strap a big jet to our body with a seat belt, close the door and hurtle down a runway, hopefully toward a pleasant destination.  We may all have in the back of our mind that we could meet our maker in what would become an international story … the kind of crisis every airline prepares for and all of us hate to see.

But our experience on Virgin Atlantic last week revealed a chink in the armor of this British aviation powerhouse when a crisis of a much different nature proved they were totally unprepared, their people untrained and their clients truly disaffected.

When you have to tell 400+ people waiting to board a 747 that their flight from London to Orlando has been cancelled, you’d better be prepared for the worst.  For them, it is a crisis.  They may have business meetings in the states.  They may be holding tickets to board a cruise to the Caribbean.  They may be a family of five with young hearts set on meeting Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter and Shamu.

The story is far too long to tell here, but suffice it to say that letting those passengers stand (no … there were no chairs anywhere) for five hours is simply inexcusable.  Perhaps worse is that no one from the airline emerged as being in charge.  One ticket agent after another would appear, beg them to “bear with me just a second” and then disappear while the increasingly frustrated crowd stood in an area that had been roped off in front of the ticket counter and referred to by the staff as a “pen.”  It soon earned a far less flattering nickname … “the pit.”

Surely this wasn’t the first time it has happened.  No doubt there’s a page in some manual … likely still sitting on a shelf with no dust disturbed Saturday, June 22.  Nor did anyone ever appear with a microphone or bullhorn to communicate with the crowd.  Instead, a frustrated little gentlemen with not much of a voice would go from one small group to another repeating himself over and over again … usually to say “we don’t yet have information but we hope to speak with them in 8 to 10 minutes,” referring to the two bus drivers who were the only transportation that could be rounded up to shuttle passengers among the three hotels it took to house them overnight.

In many ways, operationally, it was admirable.  Virgin had to find enough rooms, assign passengers to them and get them on buses … and, oh yes, reclaim their bags, which had already gone through customs.

But nothing makes a crisis worse than a vacuum, as I’m reminded by my favorite quote … which just happens to come from a British historian … C. Northcote Parkinson, who said:  “The vacuum created by a failure to communicate will quickly be filled with rumor, misrepresentation, drivel and poison.”

Ask the Virgin Atlantic crew at Gatwick Airport about the drivel and poison.  They got plenty that day.

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