While hindsight is 20/20, there’s a lot we can learn from the communication failures of the past. In the last decade or so, there have been several operational failures, natural disasters, and data breaches requiring a large coordinated response. The missteps and oversights of the response in all of these cases received widespread negative attention.
These 4 case studies are of disasters of the past decade, as well as the subsequent organizational responses. Additionally, here’s some insight into how an effective crisis communication system and plan could have worked to mitigate each case.
1. JetBlue’s Operational Disruption - 2007
The Problem: In 2007, a sudden ice storm swept the East Coast of the United States. Over the course of five days, more than 1,000 flights were cancelled. While some airlines cancelled their flights days earlier, in anticipation of the bad weather, JetBlue thought they could get through it with no cancellations.
The crisis, according to JetBlue’s CEO at the time, “was the result of a shoestring communications system that left pilots and flight attendants in the dark, and an undersize reservation system.” The spur of the moment cancellations left travelers stranded, with no one but JetBlue employees to absorb their complaints and frustration. JetBlue had to call security personnel in several cases to mitigate arguments between staff and customers. With pilots not knowing where to be, and an overwhelmed reservation system, there were enormous backlogs, and hundreds of frustrated customers without access to reservation agents.
The Response: JetBlue’s CEO David Neelman issued a public apology to all customers. He noted that JetBlue “had so many people in the company who wanted to help and who weren’t trained to help.” He promised to train 100 existing corporate office employees to work in personnel scheduling and management in order to better serve that area in the future. He also promised to adjust work agreements of reservation agents to account for heavier volumes during difficult periods.
How Crisis Communication Could Have Helped: A personnel accountability system would automatically locate staff and disseminate messages and task assignments. Instead of having to reach out to individual pilots and flight staff in disparate locations, JetBlue could use its network to send standardized messages to staff on the ground in a number of locations, and even reach staff on their smartphones.
2. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill - 2010
The Problem: In 2010, a BP-operated oil rig exploded, gushing an uncontrollable amount of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. After several failed attempts to contain the spill, the well was finally plugged, but not before 210 million gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf. Eventually, White House investigative commissions blamed BP and its partners for cost-cutting decisions that led to safety breaches, as well as industry-wide regulatory failings.
The Response: While the event itself was a tragedy and one of the worst environmental disasters in history, the response exacerbated the issue. During the crisis, BP’s website had limited information on the situation, and did not provide the public with updates.
How Crisis Communication Could Have Helped: Enterprise-of-Things technology now makes it possible for safety and security alerts to issue automatically, whenever a problem is detected. In addition, systems like AtHoc Alert allow preconfigured templates that can be sent with the click of a button. Given a more coordinated response and frequent public updates, this crisis still would not have been solved. However, more transparency could have gone a long way to stem public outrage.
3. Hurricane Sandy - 2012
The Problem: Hurricane Sandy swept through the New York tri-state area in 2012, leaving billions of dollars of damage in its wake and causing large-scale destruction. There were several complaints from the affected public about a lack of communication.
The Response: In general, the response to Sandy was seen as a marked improvement from the textbook emergency response failure of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, communities in less-populated areas of the East Coast complained that information was scarce. Community leaders were responsible for informing people about the particulars of waiting for a larger-scale emergency response. There was some confusion as to what degree local, state, and federal agencies would be involved, and on what timeline.
How Crisis Communication Could Have Helped: A crisis communications system like the AtHoc Suite could have solidified messaging for leadership, even in disparate and hard-to-reach areas. A system like AtHoc Connect helps organizations establish interoperable communication, so that they’re working with the combined powers of every organization within their network.
Crisis communication systems should create greater situational awareness for all stakeholders, so that messaging from authorized channels is coordinated and effective. Information about first responders, deploying FEMA officials, and local agencies is issued in real-time, and updated as required. Additionally, a two-way crisis communication system allows opted-in parties to offer assistance on a large scale, if they have available transportation, shelter, or food and water.
4. The Target Data Breach - 2013
The Problem: Target’s IT systems were hacked in 2013, exposing the private data of around 110 million customers. The story was broken by an IT security blogger, before the company had been made aware of the full scope of the problem.
The Response: Target apologized immediately, going into detail about how the hack had occurred. They also offered free credit monitoring to all who had been affected by the breach. However, Target rushed its response, and was later forced to walk back certain statements and information. They also posted their response on their own website, but later realized that most consumers were discussing the issue on social media. Many of the affected customers weren’t ever made aware of the response on the website, so there was a gap in communication between the company and the public.
How Crisis Communications Could Have Helped: Target could have used a crisis communication system to communicate with customers on the platforms where they resided, as opposed to the platform of Target’s choice. Additionally, with software that allows organizations to communicate and coordinate a response, Target could have presented a more unified, thought-out response. With fuller, more immediate visibility into exactly what happened, they could have prevented the dissemination of incorrect information to the public.