beyond the press release


Pilots Walk The Gangplank

I'm not writing about BP again today -- or anytime soon. Really, there's nothing left for me to say that hasn't been said elsewhere. However, in the same vein of "PR crisis control fiasco," I am writing about ceding control of the story to others, just as the pilots of Spirit Airlines did earlier this month when they went on strike over a pay lag and bungled salary negotiations spanning three years.

I found the pilot strike to be something of a paradox. The human in me wanted to side with the pilots' cause; after all, why would they not be entitled to a compensation package that is fair and reasonable? I wanted to side with the underdog -- you know, the powerless worker versus the corporate goliath, but I simply couldn't.

Why? Because the pilots did not share their plight with me -- or the rest of country, for that matter. They didn't communicate their story with anyone but each other.

Instead they embarked on a PR strategy of silence and handed the opportunity of telling their story to management on a silver platter.



Trying To Work Out Who The Good Guys Are

Unless you have been in or are part of a union, it is hard to fathom (for me, at least) the concept of striking and not being fearful that you will lose your job instantly. That is an alien concept to me. Certainly, life can be and is unfair at times, but when it's made even harder by the inconveniences caused by strikes -- and the strikers -- we feel little sympathy for those inflicting the pain -- even though we might actually relate to the root cause.

By declining to provide any information or give the traveling public substantial details giving rise to the strike, the pilots effectively put Spirit management firmly in charge of how we perceived the pilots' cause. Greedy, ungrateful, selfish, a burden and huge inconvenience -- none of which are good negotiating levers. I am not saying the pilots are any of these things, but perception is a powerful thing.

Nature (and the media, of course) abhors a vacuum, and the pilots' union at the center of the strike should have realized that if it wasn't going to fill that vacuum with commentary, details, and other story-building efforts (and in doing so gain the support of the traveling public), the other side most definitely would.

Which is exactly what happened ...

One of the basic tenets of crisis communications is to be candid and upfront at all times (hello, BP?). Another is to try to define the story on favorable terms and to maintain as much control over that story as possible. At times these can be futile pursuits (see Petroleum, British), but the interesting thing is that failure to properly execute these strategies often results in the very same outcome as not trying to execute them at all.

Common sense should have told the Spirit pilots this: a stonewall is interpreted as guilty denial, a "no comment" is an implication of guilt. Fellas, if you don't tell, people can't possibly know. They can only make assumptions and create stories of their own.

It can be argued that the Spirit debacle wasn't technically a crisis situation; after all, a strike isn't an oil spill, a bankruptcy or lascivious scandal. And by definition, a labor dispute does not call for a crisis communications strategy. But this was a unique situation, and in the age of social media the strike was more dangerous to both sides from a PR perspective as it turned into a mudslinging match; each side actively trying to pin blame on the other.

And it was, in fact, a crisis for American (and some international) consumers, those travelers with cancelled flights and plans due to Spirit's and the union's actions. The aggrieved parties -- and anyone else who could sympathize or identify with the affected consumers, which would be, um, almost everyone -- would also be looking to assign blame.

So in that sense it was a crisis situation, and demanded an effective crisis communications plan to mitigate it. The pilots, failing to grasp this, headed straight for the gangplank while management seized the opportunity -- and the day.

In the end, the strike lasted only five days. The pilots apparently got some or most of what they wanted. But whatever financial gains they made, they lost a lot more in the public domain: positive perception and trust.

So the question remains, what is more valuable?

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