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Treading Travel companies need to communicate authority in the wake of terrorist attacks and volatile political environments

It’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive, according to the old financial markets adage. If you are a travel industry communicator, however, the opposite is true.

Arrivals and departures are non-negotiable vital events. Keeping customers in good cheer en route is nice to have too but any non-arrival or non-departure is a problem and any incident that causes multiples of these events can swiftly become a major crisis.

How should communicators have responded, for example, after the recent attempted coup in Turkey that left tens of thousands of holidaymakers in uncertainty? Or after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Florida?

With such attacks both increasing in regularity and occurring in more diverse locations, the way that travel companies communicate is going to come under close scrutiny.

So what are the ground rules? How can travel operators protect their reputations when major incidents occur and how is the situation changing as social media and other Internet channels make communications a 24-hour-a-day, multichannel business?

John Williams, associate director at Regester Larkin, believes this is a very important issue for travel companies. ‘The risk of serious security incidents is ever present for travel companies as demonstrated in the last few months alone by the terrible terrorist attacks across Europe and the upheaval in Turkey,’ he says. 

‘These have presented enormous operational and commercial, not to mention reputational, challenges for travel companies operating in the regions. From a communications perspective the challenges of managing volatile situations are substantial. The unpredictability of the event, the speed at which it unfolds, and the sheer volume of information from unofficial sources across multiple channels, requires communication teams to act quickly and adopt an agile strategy.

‘As well as finding themselves in a situation where demand for information is extremely high and often extremely emotional and where there is often little information to give, travel companies also need to pay close attention to what they are doing at the micro-level. The smallest decisions and actions will all contribute to how the organisation is perceived and can cause reputational harm if these don’t match up to its words.’

Indeed, Malaysia Airlines was roundly attacked in 2014 for not being transparent enough with information after flight MH370 went missing en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 227 passengers on board.

Singapore Airlines, meanwhile, apologised for social media messages that it posted in an effort to reassure its customers after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over the Ukraine in the same year with 298 people on board.

Singapore claimed in posts on Facebook and Twitter that its planes did not fly over Ukrainian airspace but was attacked for being insensitive and disrespectful to relatives of the dead.

‘Global incidents damage the reputation of the location, not the travel company who takes people there,’ says Nick Andrews, reputation management lead partner at FleishmanHillard Fishburn. ‘Reputational damage to the travel company is dependent on how they treat their customers. They get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the incident because they, to some extent, are seen as victims too.

‘The public’s reaction to a crisis is, invariably, some variation of What does this mean for me? For most people, the answer will be Nothing. But for people with holidays booked or on holiday, the requirement for an answer will be specific and immediate.’

In such circumstances, it is generally acknowledged that the more specific a travel company can be, the better the result for its reputation.

General statements are seen as passable if there are general facts that will reassure, such as telling people that all flights will go as scheduled or that nobody will lose money. However, Andrews also warns against bland statements that advise customers to look at an airline or tour operator’s website.

These are often counter-productive, he advises, because they focus on processes rather than on people and encourage a perception that a company is trying to shirk its communications responsibilities.

‘Generally, in times of trouble, people like to talk to people,’ he adds. ‘Preparation is relatively easy, which is not to say that it is usually done or done well. It should focus on speed, range and responsiveness: how you can reach everybody quickly and be in a position to answer their specific questions.

‘This involves auditing their communications systems and, importantly, practicing. Crisis training is like learning a martial art. Essentially what you are trying to do is establish corporate muscle memory so that your organisation reacts quickly and instinctively, rather than having everyone poring through crisis manuals trying to work out what to do. Time is the most important commodity in any crisis.’

Others believe that communication has suffered historically at travel companies precisely because so much effort is given to security and safeguarding lives of passengers.

Donald Steel, an independent crisis management specialist who is heavily involved in the travel and aviation sector, says: ‘The travel industry puts the highest priority on the safety and security of customers. But in recent years, the industry has refined its response to major incidents, putting the need to get information to affected customers and their families at the top of the list.

‘Customers also expect rapid information and companies have now become sophisticated in the use of social media in a crisis. It’s not easy to communicate quickly in an emergency. You can only do so with careful planning and rehearsal and having a playbook of statements and posts at the ready to be adapted in a crisis.’

Nick Barron, UK managing director of corporate and financial at Edelman, believes that most major travel companies now have their responses to terrorist attacks well-rehearsed and thought through but warns against excessive communication.

He explains: ‘We’re all hyper-connected now so, although customers will expect their travel company to tell them anything that directly affects their holiday, they don’t necessarily want them to act like a breaking news service.

‘Communications people naturally reach for communications solutions to problems, but we need to recognise that during periods of intense speculation and confusion, less is more. Stick to the facts, avoid platitudes and refer people to expert sources of information. In the event that your operations are directly affected, prioritise communications with customers and employees.

‘How a company responds is key to protecting and enhancing trust, so prepare for every scenario and when incidents do occur, make them your top priority. In the most serious circumstances, the chief executive needs to be prepared to take the lead on the ground and face the media.’

Indeed, seasoned travel communicators still recall the credit that Sir Michael Bishop, the former chairman of the British Midland airline, received for his actions after the Kegworth air crash disaster in which 47 people died in 1989.

He was at his home when his secretary, who lived in the Leicestershire village, heard the crash on the nearby M1 and rang him. He was at the scene within half an hour and gave the first interviews before even reaching the scene, by telephone from his car whilst on the way.

A blog post by media training consultancy MediaFirst to mark the 25th anniversary of the disaster said: ‘The end result was that a small airline that could have been crushed by the weight of publicity emerged all the stronger, thanks to the positive public perception Bishop created.

Far from falling, ticket sales held steady and then grew. In the longer term, the airline grew into BMI. It was eventually bought by Lufthansa, which sold it on for £172 million.’

Travel communications is also a harsh environment where operators also need to be adept at handling individual personal tragedies.

Peter Fankhauser, chief executive of travel chain Thomas Cook, was forced to issue an apology last year – nine years after children Bobby and Christi Shepherd died of carbon monoxide poisoning while on one of the company’s holidays in Corfu. An inquest found that Thomas Cook had breached its duty of care to the family. The parents of the children described its actions as ‘appalling’.

Following the criticism, Thomas Cook announced it was donating £1.5 million to children’s charity Unicef, only to be attacked again for not handing the sum to the bereaved parents, who had each been awarded £350,000 after a seven-year legal battle for justice.

‘Most people have no idea how difficult travel communications can be,’ says one seasoned consultant. ‘They think it’s a fluffy sector that’s all about jetting off to the sun. In reality, it involves dealing with a surprisingly large amount of death. There are traffic accidents, drownings and suicides. People do silly things on holiday and there are many more incidents than people think. You have to think about the factors that could make the suffering of their families even worse and do everything you can to avoid them.’

This involves keeping everybody involved in incidents as fully informed as is possible, making sure that bodies of the dead are not carried to their homeland on the same aeroplanes as their relatives and going the extra mile for affected passengers.

The consultant, however, still regards travel as the most difficult sector in which to communicate, citing the inability of firms to talk about all the positive work they do with bereaved relatives, for reasons of confidentiality.

Williams adds: ‘Ultimately, the objective is to ensure that the decisions and actions taken and implemented reflect stakeholder expectations and demands and are communicated back to the right stakeholders in the right way.

‘Do start communicating immediately. The trap that communication professionals must avoid is waiting for information. By communicating quickly, organisations take control and become the source of information for stakeholders.

‘Do strike the right tone. Ensure all communications are truthful and a mix of humility, empathy and control.

‘Do communicate actions being taken. An organisation will ultimately be judged on the decisions it makes and the actions it takes. These need to be communicated in the right way, with the right tone, at the right time to the right people.’

Barron goes ever further, wondering whether the terrorism threat could soon reach a level where it is desirable for travel companies to communicate the risks more frankly, at least with some of their stakeholders.

‘If we assume that events like those seen in Belgium, France and Germany this summer represent a new normal for Europe, then travel companies should discuss the implications honestly with employees and shareholders,’ he says.

He stops short of recommending such conversations with customers, however. In the world of travel crisis communications, it’s difficult to assess whether this would resolve potential problems or exacerbate them.

Bear that in mind next time a travel company is criticised for the way it communicates in a disaster or crisis.