Asiana’s public response to Saturday’s crash in San Francisco is raising more than a few eyebrows.
Immediately after the crash, the carrier seemed to be making all the right moves. It apologized quickly and sincerely and even went as far as to state that the cause was not mechanical – a rare demonstration of responsibility that drew praise from observers and pundits.
But since then, the company’s statements have been few, far between, and largely relegated to Korean media outlets. The company hasn’t made spokespersons available to U.S. reporters, despite the fact that the American public remains glued to the story. And even though rapid response is Rule One in the airline crisis playbook, it took three days for the carrier’s CEO to arrive on the scene.
Asiana’s decision to forego crisis communications counseling has also been noted. In response, Asiana says that now is not the time to focus on the airline’s image. In response to that, I would argue that now is the only time to assert control over the disaster narrative before it spins beyond the airline’s control. In this era of instant and lasting impressions, Asiana’s strategy is allowing others to drive and influence the conversation. That’s the last thing a company in crisis can allow.
One has to assume that Asiana is working hard behind the scenes to get to the bottom of what happened and implement measures that will help ensure a similar episode never again plays out. But the benefit of the doubt is not enough to satisfy wary air travelers focused on safety above all else. For evidence of that, just look at how the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is communicating with its stakeholders.
We don’t have to assume that the NTSB is on the job. We know it is. Three days ago, very few people in America could have picked NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman out of lineup. Today, everyone knows her name. That’s because she’s been a fixture on cable and network news broadcasts, social and digital media, and in print.
The NTSB certainly has its hands full in these first days of its investigation, but it understands that a key part of its job is reassuring the American public that it’s doing all it can to prevent accidents like this in the future. As such, it ensures that regular media engagements inform us about new findings as they develop – and comfort anxious air travelers in the process.
The NTSB understands that actions don’t speak always speak for themselves. In crisis, someone needs to speak for them. While Asiana is limited in what it can communicate under NTSB rules, there are always messages of concern and action that can be deployed to help protect an airline’s reputation as a responsible steward of passenger safety.
Right now, those messages are nowhere to be found. As a result, it’s Asiana that is coming off as the problem; and the NTSB that is coming off as the problem solver.