It was a blazing hot day when 23-year-old student and part-time waitress Kyla Ebbert left her San Diego campus for the airport. She had a doctor's appointment in nearby Tucson and had a flight reservation with Southwest Airlines.
Ebbert handed her stub to the flight attendant and took her seat. But as the crew started the safety announcements she was approached by a safety officer, who asked her to follow him off the plane and onto the connecting skyway. Once outside the officer told her she was dressed in an inappropriate manner and would have to return home to change before she could take her flight.
Ebbert, who was wearing a tight turquoise sweater and white denim mini-skirt, was dumbfounded. 'What part of my outfit is offensive?' she asked the attendant. 'The shirt? The skirt?' The attendant frowned and said 'The whole thing.' The passenger stood her ground and eventually was allowed back on the plane on condition that she pulled down her skirt, pulled up her sweater and wore a blanket over her lap during the journey.
If you work in PR, the beads of sweat have probably already started to form on your forehead; this is, of course, a brand crisis in the making. Ebbert complained first to her mother, then the local radio station and finally the story started to make the national press. The final circle of media hell was achieved when Ebbert, clad in her now-infamous outfit, did the Today show followed by Dr Phil. Then a second woman, Setara Qassim, came forward, claiming she had been forced to fly Southwest wrapped in a blanket after her halter-neck dress was deemed too low-cut by flight attendants.
The problem for Southwest was threefold. First, it had treated two women who were dressed normally by current standards extremely badly. Second, Southwest has a strong reputation in the US as the fun and approachable airline. Its treatment of the women was not just inconsistent but directly contradictory to its positioning. Third, and perhaps worst of all, the airline looked hypocritical. In the 70s it used the strapline 'Sex sells seats' and dressed its stewardesses in hotpants that made Ebbert look like Auntie Edna at Christmas. Blogs began to erupt and the media to circle; a strong brand was in trouble.
PR is the most under-used and under-rated communication tool. This is largely because most managers believe their products are too mundane to garner media attention. David Blaine's confinement in a box next to Tower Bridge should initiate a rethink. If a half-naked man doing nothing in an empty box for 44 days can capture hundreds of column inches worldwide, surely anything is possible?
There is nothing supernatural about a slightly unhinged American starving himself in quasi-solitary confinement. What is magical is Blaine's incredible ability to generate, sustain, and manage a PR campaign – so much so that he provides five strategic lessons for managers contemplating PR as a method for promoting a new product or service.
First, focus on a pre-launch stage. Blaine spent a whole month promoting his London adventure. He knew a product's most newsworthy period is, paradoxically, prior to its actual availability. A pre-launch stage builds up the momentum that propels a successful product.
Second, make the launch itself a true event. Blaine ensured audiences around the world read about or tuned in live as he entered the box. The day your product becomes available must be the biggest day in its history.
Turn that day into one, or preferably more than one, big event and work with the media to ensure immediate consumer awareness of your new offering.
When Southwest Airlines launched direct flights to Memphis, it invited Elvis impersonators to make the first journey. The ensuing images of 200 Elvis lookalikes arriving at Memphis, slightly the worse for wear, guaranteed great awareness.
Of all the communication tools that a marketer can invest in, public relations is probably the most underrated.
PR is relatively cheap and is a wonderful method of providing information on a brand, while avoiding the clutter that so often reduces advertising impact. Yet it is a relatively minor ingredient in many integrated marketing plans.
The problem with PR is its invisibility. Unlike advertising or the internet there are no glossy prints, 30-second spots or 3-D graphics to point to as justification for the investment. Unlike sales promotions and direct marketing, there is no way of linking the amount invested in communications with that received in the form of increased sales. As a result, PR is often overlooked as an important and economic method of building a brand over time.
The PR industry itself has to accept responsibility for this situation because of the rather fluffy and unaccountable way in which it has promoted itself. In many instances PR agencies have been comfortable accepting a retainer from clients without ever offering any form of evaluation of their activities on behalf of that client.
British Airways' Terminal 5 disaster will prove even more damaging to the BA brand than initial indications suggest.
A PR storm has been created by mismanagement, strategic circumstances and simple bad luck, and the events of the past few days will blight BA's brand for years.
British Airways is a Branded House; the best possible brand architecture for employer branding, service businesses and brand strategy. However, one of its key disadvantages is its vulnerability to crisis. When Coca-Cola endured the unmitigated disaster of Dasani, it took one on the nose and scrapped a brand that had been expected to make millions. But no damage was done to Coke, or any of the brands in its portfolio, because of the house of brands structure it operates. In BA's case, the problems at T5 hit 100% of the brand, all over the world.
Then there is the very specific damage done to BA's brand equity. At the heart of its positioning are 'reassurance' and 'reliability', making it peculiarly vulnerable to a debacle like that of T5. In branding terms, there is a world of difference between inconsistency and contradiction. BA is facing the mother of all contradictions, amplified by global media coverage. Fortunately, it was able to scrap a scheduled BBH-created brand-building campaign citing T5 before it broke. This, however, leaves the brand facing a torrent of negative coverage and passenger experiences, without any possible injection of brand equity in the foreseeable future.
While all organizations intend to create the best possible customer experiences, occasionally something real or perceived happens that produces just the opposite effect: a crisis. Every brand will experience a crisis at one time or another. The hallmark of a strong brand is how well it handles those crises.
The crisis could come as a result of something the company does (such as Exxon Valdez) or something that is foisted upon it (rumors that McDonalds hamburgers are made of worms). But, when a crisis occurs, it is time to enact a well-rehearsed crisis management plan.
So, think about a crisis management now (hopefully, long before any actual crisis), and begin with the following considerations:
• Steadily and consistently build brand goodwill over time.
• Identify and address potential problem areas ahead of any actual crises.
• Have a well-thought-through crisis (or emergency response) plan, including scenarios, step-by-step instructions on how to best address each scenario, approved spokespeople, contact information and key communication documents (fact sheets, backgrounders, press releases, bios, etc.).
• Work with crisis management experts and your legal staff in developing those plans.
• Conduct crisis management drills at least once a year if not more often.
• Conduct a crisis vulnerability audit.
• During the crisis itself, follow these general rules: