Asiana Air turns down comms help.

Associated Press image

A recent PRSA Tactics article alerted me to Asiana Airlines decision to not seek U.S.-based PR counsel in the wake of this month’s Boeing-777 crash in San Francisco. According to the Wall Street Journal Blog, Korea Realtime, this decision is consistent with the Korean business culture in which the primary focus is on strong in-house communications teams. Apparently there is a concern that outside counsel would unduly influence the company’s management.

Most American PR professionals would say, “Of course outside counsel would influence the company’s management and business practices. These are probably the origins of the issues that led to the crisis in the first place.”

However, we have to look at this from the Korean cultural perspective and understand the deference they give to their internal teams. Those of us working in American corporate communications are often frustrated that our leadership will listen to the advice from a third-party consultant even though we’ve been giving the same recommendations for months. Somehow hearing the same song from a more expensive voice makes the point more salient.  In that respect, adopting a more Korean-style approach would make us feel more valuable and probably cost the company less (assuming in-house counsel is giving good advice).

Kudos to Asiana for getting their top leadership in front of the media with clear messaging. Unfortunately it took three days to get the top leaders to the crash site and in front of the media, creating an impression that this issue was not their top priority. While I think their decision to discuss their opinions as to the reasons for the crash are premature and risky at such an early stage, their transparency is admirable.

Another thing I think Asiana is doing well is keeping the focus on the issue and not the image. In the initial stages of a crisis, the most important thing is to stop its source – put out the fire first. Second, you address the needs of your victims and their families. Third, start finding out what happened and why. Fourth, share the findings and explain what you’re doing to make sure this never happens again. On the surface, that sounds fairly straightforward. However, when you’ve got international media clamoring for the latest update and issuing conjectures and half-baked truths, it can be a nightmare. Yes, deal with the issue. Image is secondary. However, Asiana exec’s are missing out on a key element here. PR isn’t about image. It’s about relationships. Those relationships with the victims, their current and prospective customer base, the traveling public, regulators, and the media all need to be managed simultaneously.

In addition, this crisis involves a business whose audiences are largely non-Korean and whose crisis took place in another country. At this point, it’s unclear as to whether Asiana’s in-house team has experience in dealing with American media or the media markets of its victims, including China. There has already been a call for the airline to express more sincere sympathy to its Chinese market for the tragic deaths of the two teenagers.

So, what do we learn from this?

  1.  Have an up-to-date crisis communications plan that addresses international and social media.
  2. Get management buy-in on the plan. Their involvement is critical,
  3. Ensure you have adequate resources (in-house or on contract) to implement the plan at a moment’s notice.
  4. Practice your plan regularly through drills. Make sure your infrastructure works and you’re prepared for the unexpected.
  5. When the crisis hits, put out the fire, help the victims, and support a thorough investigation into the crisis’ origins.
  6. Throughout a crisis, establish and maintain an empathetic dialogue based on facts.

Fortunately, plane crashes are increasingly rare. In 2012 there were only 15 crashes involving deaths as opposed to 25 in the previous year. However, as we learned with this week’s Asiana crash , the rarity of a crisis doesn’t diminish the need to prepare for it.

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