There’s good news and bad news surrounding media reports Jan. 17 that Delta cabin personnel will be receiving diversity training. The good news, of course, is that the brand is providing important training to front-line employees at a time when social media, full flights, small seats and perhaps the charged political climate have combined to create a perfect storm for destroying airlines’ brand reputation.
As my colleague Steve Goldstein wrote last month, “Is there an industry more vulnerable to crises than the airline industry? On the one hand you have the usually catastrophic nature of airplane crashes and terrorist attacks; on the other you have on every plane aggravated, gaseous, claustrophobic passengers packed like Pringles in a tube, armed with smartphones, ready to broadcast to the world any provocation.”
I’ll answer Steve’s question about any industry being more vulnerable to crisis than the airlines: arguably any industry where employees face the public is vulnerable. Ditto any industry where a product or service is visible to the public. How about the restaurant industry? Sure, it lacks the obvious potential for terrorism that airlines possess, but the face-to-face contact restaurant employees have daily with the public, some of whom could have mobile phones concealed, make it highly vulnerable to crisis. Take a look at the second video attached to the story linked here if you think restaurants aren't vulnerable to social media incidents. Heck, consumers don’t even need to have mobile phones; a laptop at home will do, as my colleague Jerry Ascierto noted in his account of the recent Dairy Queen incident . The rapidity of a crisis to damage a restaurant brand is well demonstrated in the recent Chili’s incident that my colleague Ian James Wright recounted.
Another scenario for the restaurant sector is where customers use their phones to snap photos of less-than-attractive food items, post them on Instagram and Twitter next to photos in ads for the items and let social media take its coarse, er, course. Theoretical? This already has happened to KFC in the U.K.
But let’s get back to Delta. The carrier has been hit repeatedly in the last few months by incidents in its cabins. One, during the Thanksgiving lead-in, saw an irate passenger spew sexist invective against people on flight 248 from Atlanta to Allentown, PA, who’d voted for Hillary Clinton.
Apparently the Delta cabin crew hadn’t witnessed the full force of the passenger’s wrath. The passenger was allowed to remain on the aircraft. Unfortunately for Delta, much of his oration was caught by a passenger’s mobile phone. Not difficult to guess what happened next. It went viral and Delta took a beating. The Nov. 22 incident led to a Nov. 26 statement of apology from Delta: “We have followed up with the teams involved and all agree that this customer should not have been allowed to continue on the flight...The behavior we see in this video does not square with our training or culture and follow up will continue so we can better ensure our employees will know they will be fully supported to make the right decisions when these issues arise.”
Nov. 27 Delta CEO Ed Bastian sent a public memo to employees, agreeing that the airline was at fault: The passenger should have been booted from the flight. Bastian subsequently banned the passenger from future flights. He also said Delta would issue full refunds to passengers.
The following month, Delta was hit with another incident, which Steve Goldstein describes in his story, mentioned above. Another incident, in October, involving Delta saw a medical issue on board one of its aircraft. In response, a young, black woman tried to alert a member of the cabin crew that she was a doctor; the woman was told to sit down. “Oh no, sweetie, we are looking for actual physicians,”a cabin crew member allegedly told her. The young doctor detailed the event on her Facebook page.
We’d heard PR pros complain that Delta lagged in its responses to these incidents. Perhaps. At least the brand is acknowledging the issue and providing training. The bad news: Delta is the last of the big 4 U.S. airlines to provide such training to cabin crews, following United, American and Southwest, according to Bloomberg. Apparently the airline’s executives were provided such training previously. (Good, but what about its public-facing employees?) Also troubling: As we write this blog Jan. 18, there’s no mention of diversity training on the Delta media site. That would have been a good story to get out to media.
Yet Delta is not the sole airline being hit. Indeed, due to a rise in discrimination-related incidents on aircraft in 2016, the Department of Transportation earlier this month issued guidelines for airline personnel on nondiscrimination. It also provided passengers with documents explaining their rights.
The real takeaway here is that while the klieg light shines today on Delta and its airline brethren, no industry that deals with the public is immune from a social media-driven crisis. Since a study we did last year with Nasdaq showed nearly 50% of brands shun crisis preparation, perhaps Volkswagen, Wells Fargo and now Delta have provided the necessary jolt, but maybe not. Wake up, brands, the evidence is all around you.
Follow Seth: @skarenstein