The PR Issue Behind Alaska Airlines Decompression

Found via Scobleizer, then seen on MP, and then noted on BuzzMachine the PR issue ... here's an interesting story on Alaska Airlines ... and how the plane decompression was blogged about with nice photos by Jeremy Hermanns (good first name, well, middle name for him - but I am biased on that one).

While others want to jump on the "citizen journalism" train - woohoo - the other story here for PR professionals (and bloggers) is that Alaska Airlines employees have possibly (update, bc of Dave Taylor's point) gone nasty-comment-happy on Jeremy's blog.

Now, I am going to assume (yes, I know the cutesy saying) that the employees commenting are not the official spokespeople for the airlines. I cannot imagine a PR person making such asinine comments on a blog, or not being able to spell, or just posting stupid comments that they researched his pilot's license - that's not PR nor would it behoove any PR person to operate like that. It says sneaky and sleazy and unprofessional.

But, it does really project that every organization needs to have a blogging policy for all employees. Even if the employees are not operating as official (or unofficial) spokespeople for the company, their IP addresses scream "I work for so-and-so!!" A blogging policy - and a blogging comment policy - would take care of such issues. And, if an employee still feels the need to post comments, then the corporation should feel the need to show the employee the door.

It reminds me of other comments and posts out there from employees of companies. They might be great evangelists, but are they official spokespersons? Who is an official spokesperson for a company nowadays? Is it anyone out there that blogs, or should it still be the public relations team, who hopefully can move quickly and nimbly. Or, at the least, should there not be a consistent message for blog comments and blog posts coming from a company? No, I am not condoning or suggesting canned blog posts, but there are certain messaging points you want to convey as a company.

In the blogosphere, everyone from the company feels like they are part of the company, and part of the greater good. This is true for old companies, and new, but it is not the way it really should be. Employees are an extension of the company, and what an employee does is a direct reflection of the corporation. In this instance - besides the bad press for the airplane decompressing, Alaska has to deal with the view that they are a crass, uncaring, lackadaisical airline. Which could have been easily avoided with an internal blog comment policy.

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15 comments

  1. I think you are right to focus on the PR aspects of this. The whole incident, particularly the way it is dealt with in the blogosphere has 'future B-school case study' written all over it.

    I look forward to seeing what PR/blogger types have to say about it.

    I don't know which PR firm Alaska Airlines uses, but if I were them I'ld sure be looking for a PR firm that was blog savvy.

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  2. Jeremy, I think you are the only PR blogger I've seen that grasped the real PR lesson here. Congrats!

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  3. Thanks Robert - that's my job ;) BTW, the room offer at CES is still up, but I get to drag you to a client dinner and/or their booths.

    Aldon, according to the O'Dwyer Database, Alaska's PR firm is Wong Doody, or at least for advertising and marketing.

    And, yes, I am open to discussions with Alaska. :)

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  4. Welcome back!

    Indeed this is the main PR story. Clearly they also need to learn how to get into the conversation quickly and professionally. As you say, a blog policy would go a long way to doing this, but they also need a Social Media communication strategy. Which means they already need to be out there with some key relationships so that they can tell their story and answer questions. What about a silent blog that goes live in a crisis? Along with well-formed relationships through several corporate bloggers?

    And, this does relate directly to the "citizen journalism train." As the media start to look to the blogosphere for more information (as you personally know they have), this issue will be key to those relationships with the "legacy" media.

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  5. Poynter's Paul Grabowicz had a piece about how various Seattle-area media outlets picked up on Hermann's pix and a video from a Damon Zwicker.
    As part of a corporate blogging policy, as you note, this does reinforce the importance of a company-wide, internal communications policy and program.
    All employees need to be aware of not what only the company is doing in marketing and comms., but how each employee plays a key role in that effort. It can be simply word of mouth to a neighbor, or via blogs.
    I hope companies start to as much emphasis on internal comms. as they do for external comms.
    --Mike

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  6. I think its not just a matter of publishing a blogging comment policy but also providing training to employees. Every company has policies but how often do they get overlooked in the dusty handbook. It takes executive support and emphasis to make people take notice.

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  7. Jeremy: Good post and discussion.

    I think "New PR" may be the wrong duty for Wong Doody. They need a different duty that they understand better; that would be the right duty for Wong Doody.

    Alaska Airlines: hire Jeremy.

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  8. These posts were "not smart." More on my blog at http://scobleizer.wordpress.com/2005/12/30/alaska-employees-not-posting-smart/

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  9. Ping (- pretend trackback for Blogger purposes)

    http://www.reputationplus.com/2005/12/alaska_airlines.html

    "If your company is big enough and ugly enough to need a policy which specifically prevents employees from talking directly to the press (without prior clearance from the communications dept) then the same goes for blogs.

    Treat blogs as internationally published media. And require your employees to get clearance before they talk about your company or anything to do with the company, even anonymously. Otherwise, they face disciplinary procedures."

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  10. Companies should have clear guidelines about blogging, who talks to the press etc... but in the context of employee blogs a little disclaimer like "The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent my employer’s positions, strategies or opinions." goes a long way with regards to protect the company.

    With regards to blogging policies, the best thing to do is to have them written down by the employees themselves (via a wiki ?) so that they are involved in the process... Most of the time simple and good basic rules are the result. (Even after legal reviews them ;-)

    With regards to the Alaska Airlines incident... There I see this debate flaring up again on "hey you deleted a comment, hey you changed a reply"... I saw the same reaction during the Les Blogs conference in Paris and was amazed how strongly other bloggers reacted to "deleting a comment". To me it is simple; my blog is my property, if you are rude/obnoxious, racist etc.. you get deleted.

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  11. The attitude and behavior of the employees is no different than it was years ago when I was in the newsroom.

    The difference is that the workers sometimes had the savvy to call from cell phones or send nasty e-mails from untracable Hotmail accounts. The majority of today's "non-PR sensitive" employees at most firms have no idea their anonymous blog comments are so easy tracable.

    Even worse -- the electronic trail is just as permanent as it is easy to follow.

    In my PR-sensitivity training, I preach non-engagement... this will become my new textbook example about laying low. Thanks Jeremy...

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  12. We're still jumping to the conclusion that AA employees - and not hackers pretending to be AA employees - posted these comments. As I understand it, an IP address isn't that hard to fake.

    But apart from that, I think the main issue here is that some corners of the blogosphere have run with the idea that Alaska is somehow conducting an official PR campaign in the blogosphere by posting nasty comments on a blog belonging to a person who was traumatized in an accident involving one of their aircraft. That's just bunkum and it's good to see that Jeremy knows it.

    Yes, Alaska needs to have a clearer blogging policy in place for it's employees - but whether or not they enter the blogosphere is a decision that they're going to make based on a larger number of factors

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  13. These are great comments. What strikes me is that Alaska Airlines didn't seem to have a crises management plan in place. For an airline, it's not if, but when someone is going to have to deal with the public in a very unpleasant way.
    If the company did have a crises management plan, it was totally shredded by bumbling in the blogosphere. Talk about a hole in the ship!

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  14. Great points. But can one really enforce a blogging policy? The US military can barely do it, and it's fair to assume they have more control over their ranks than the average corporation.

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  15. I'm doing an interview tomorrow for our podcast with an attorney who specializes in these areas to talk about legal issues surrounding this case.

    If any of you have questions for him, please post them in the comments section of our post on the subject.

    Thanks!

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