Internal Investigations Blog

News and Opinions on Corporate Inquiries


Asiana Airlines Doesn’t Claim It’s Raining in San Francisco

If the objective of effective compliance and ethics programs is organizations policing themselves and doing the right thing, then should one not applaud ones that do? If corporate wrongs have victims – including particular industries and society as a whole – and law enforcement and society want companies to subordinate self-interest to doing the right thing, then why marvel when a business does just that? Take a look at Asiana Airlines’ response to the recent crash of its Boeing 777 airliner in San Francisco last Saturday.

According to a story in The Wall Street Journal, the public relations industry determined that the sky was falling and Asiana was doomed because it did not put a good face on the not-nearly-as-tragic-as-it-could-have-been crash landing of its jet at San Francisco International Airport. The WSJ article noted that:

“[i]t took three days for Asiana Airlines to dispatch its chief executive and a team of staffers to Saturday’s plane-crash site at San Francisco International Airport, where the executive was set to apologize, meet with federal officials and call for a thorough investigation.

That response, coupled with the Korean company’s decision not to hire communications help in the U.S., was considered slow in a country [the United States] where companies facing disasters typically spring into crisis-control mode.

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To Jonathan Bernstein, a U.S.-based consultant and crisis manager who has worked with an airline and travel firms on crisis plans, it seemed that Asiana was caught flat-footed by the crash.

‘They weren’t ready to respond as quickly as they should have,’ he said. The airline did post a notice on its website, including the English-language version, several hours after Saturday’s accident, but it has issued just three releases since.

Mr. Bernstein contrasted Asiana’s response to that of JetBlue Airways Corp., which came under fire in 2007 for keeping passengers on the tarmac during rough weather. The airline’s then-CEO, David Neeleman, ‘got out there,’ Mr. Bernstein said. ‘He put a face, a real human compassionate face on the crisis, and I think Asiana needs to find someone who can speak for them like that.’

Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board who now consults on safety and crisis communications, said it took the airline ‘an inordinate amount of time’ to put up a toll-free number for families to get information after the crash, a step that is required by the agency. The company’s website didn’t post the number until about nine hours after the crash.”

It’s not as if Asiania – from the other side of the globe – did nothing in the wake of the crash so as to have fallen down on its obligations under the Aviation Disaster Family Assistance Act.  Passed in 1996, it requires all domestic and foreign airline carriers to regularly file detailed plans for assisting families of those injured or killed in plane crashes with the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to the WSJ article, Asiana had 62 staffers working at the San Francisco crash site at the time of publication, with an additional 14 employees expected to have arrived on site by this past Tuesday. In addition, it tabbed United Continental Holdings, Inc. – the parent company of United Air Lines and an industry partner – to assist it in dealing with the incident.

According to Asiana, United provided 30 additional employees to help manage post-crash assistance. United also opened its terminal lounges for that purpose, sent representatives to local hospitals to act as liaisons with injured passengers, arranged for hotel rooms for others, and helped in re-booking flights. Asiana has paid or will pay for those hotel rooms and for flights to bring relatives of the crash victims to and from San Francisco.

Apparently, this isn’t good enough for the PR world, which seems to believe that Asiana’s tremendous blunder is its failure to put a better spin – or any spin – on this matter. Asiana’s bumbling post-crash stance:

“After the accident and while still in Korea, Asiana President and CEO Yoon Young-doo made several public apologies, along with statements about the experience of the plane’s pilots. But the Seoul-based carrier has issued few statements in the U.S. and declined to arrange for any media spokespeople outside of Korea. The carrier said it has received offers from stateside communications companies eager to help manage the crisis, but it said it wasn’t interested.

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.

That concept is foreign to many U.S.-based crisis managers, who help clients develop elaborate plans and targeted messaging far in advance of potential problems.” [Emphasis added.]

Look before you leap. Don’t rush to judgment. Think before you act. Don’t p–s on my head and tell me it’s raining.

These are all adages that most were raised with and yet they go out the window when messaging becomes more important than the facts. To put this in the context of corporate investigations, are not the prefabricated, mumbo-jumbo responses ready for deployment in the next airline crash by professional talking heads analogous to the knee-jerk “rogue employee” declarations of almost every company that gets caught with its hand in a C&E cookie jar?

While protecting stockholder investment is a valid and critical job in the face of bad corporate news, immediately is not always the proper time to manage a company’s image. Despite the fact that the news cycle passes quickly and today’s gaffes are usually papered-over in three days, organizations should, nevertheless, try to get things right. Shareholder and public confidences are best served when this is done, as – even in the wake of tremendously bad news – stock prices usually rebound in the end. Asiana’s own stock was up $0.31 at the time of the WSJ piece.

So perhaps businesses should get the facts – even preliminary ones – and then tell the story, as opposed to doing the opposite. Metaphorically speaking, would one rather have a cheating spouse that sends cards and flowers on every anniversary or a spouse that sometimes forgets the wedding date but faithfully comes home every night? In the long run, substance always trumps form.

Maybe Asiana Airlines realizes that and maybe companies facing down government probes ought to do the same.

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