In Crisis PR, the Best Defense Isn’t (Always) a Good Offense

“The best defense is a good offense.”

This approach is often recommended for everything from sports to litigation to political campaigns. When it comes to crisis communications, going on the offensive is not always the right strategy.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on Asiana Airlines’ take on crisis communications in response to the Asiana Flight 214 crash at San Francisco International Airport.

“‘It’s not the proper time to manage the company’s image,’ said an Asiana representative in Korea, when asked about the company’s response.”

Though I recognize the cultural values that may influence Asiana’s approach, its decision to decline crisis communications support from U.S.-based companies was ill-advised. Sure, Asiana is a Korean company with Korean values and most of that flight’s passengers were Chinese and Korean nationals; however, the crash happened on American soil. The company has an American audience, too.

Asiana should have heeded the advice of communications experts who are attuned to the American audience. When it comes to high profile accidents and crises, Americans demand more proactive communications from companies and any delay in response could be interpreted as a lack of concern – a serious mistake in any crisis situation.

Compounding this error in communications strategy, Asiana announced on July 15 that it would sue KTVU, a San Francisco Bay Area TV news station, for erroneously reporting fake pilot names that had been confirmed by an intern at NTSB. The company claimed that the report caused serious damage to the airline’s reputation.

Two days later, Asiana announced that it would no longer pursue a lawsuit:

“(Asiana) has decided to not pursue legal action as a result of a public apology by KTVU for the report in question and (the airline’s) determination to keep all of its resources dedicated to caring for the passengers and family members of Asiana flight 214 and supporting the investigation into the cause of the accident.”

This was the right PR move:
1. A lawsuit claiming damage to Asiana’s reputation contradicts the original statement that now is “not the proper time to manage the company’s image.”
2. In lawsuit-happy U.S., Asiana would not have gained the American public’s sympathy by playing the victim. The passengers and their families are the victims – that’s the bottom line.
3. It would have appeared that Asiana‘s priorities were out of order. Mounting a legal suit would have been a distraction from what should be the number one priority – ensuring the      safety of future flights.

We’re glad to see that Asiana is taking steps in the right direction. Crisis communications isn’t just about protecting your image; it’s also about meeting the needs of your audience.

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