5 travel PR catastrophes (and how they could have been avoided)

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One look at our website’s Awards page will attest to how much staff at Smoking Gun have achieved since the agency’s inception. And yet we still stick to a mantra that involves preparing for unforeseen dangers that can harm reputations, campaigns and pushes, in order to achieve great success.
After all, if you’re not ready to put out the flames, then public relations probably isn’t right for you. We can plan, double plan and triple plan to our heart’s content, consider every possible eventuality, and still have work to do when it comes to ensuring there’s a minimum risk of nasty surprises. This shouldn’t be confused for expecting the worst, mind, but instead viewed as simple due diligence.
One of our favourite sectors to work in is Travel PR. The selling of ideas that in turn sell holidays, flight routes and escapism to the public is understandably appealing- everyone dreams of running away to some exotic locale for a week or two in the warm sun we’re all-too-often denied in the U.K. Similarly, most of us fantasise about exploring far off cities to unearth all those hidden treasures, cultural assets and historic gems found in all four corners of the urbanised Earth.
Just because something can be fun, though, doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing right the way to the idealised destination- great press coverage and online engagement. So often a small oversight, ill-conceived plan, or indiscretion can lead to massive fallout for a brand. Looking for examples? Here’s a quintet of notable mistakes on the part of travel companies, and their PR representatives, along with a few suggestions on how they could have been avoided.

CheapOair – World’s most expensive flight changes

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Earlier this month, CheapOair, which claims to let customers ‘travel the world for less’, made headlines for all the wrong reasons when it charged an elderly couple £2,000 to change the dates of their flights, twice. The original bookings were worth just £143 per person, and the carrier, Air New Zealand, has a ‘change fee’ of £83 on the route in question. Worse still, one of the changes was because the tourists had their passports stolen, and needed to collect new documents. After news hit of the fees the situation was rectified, but this was already after several emails and phone calls had been made to the booking agent, with no response.
Our suggestion: Firstly, double check all systems to ensure mistakes like this can’t happen. Secondly, when you receive an email from customers querying why altering flight dates cost ten times more than the flights, you should definitely respond.
 

Malaysia Airlines – Ultimate bucket list fail

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It’s 2014, and in the midst of a terrible year for Malaysia Airlines thanks to the disappearance of flight MH370 the Asian carrier decided to launch a competition giving away free economy class tickets and iPads. All the public had to do to enter was send in their Ultimate Bucket List of destinations they wanted to see before they died. No, seriously. Even writing about this almost two years on beggars belief.
Our suggestion: Consider every aspect of a company’s history- going right back to the formation of a brand- before deciding to go public with any campaign or competition.
 

Ryanair – How long have you got? 

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Ryanair offer innumerable instances when they could have come across more positively in the public eye. In our opinion, though, few come close to the company’s official response to a blog post that suggested a ‘glitch’ in the website could be exploited to book free air tickets. After realising this wasn’t really the case, the blogger retracted the statement, but found the following comments had already been left on his blog, all apparently from staff at the airline:
“You’re an idiot and a liar!! fact is! you’ve opened one session then another and requested a page meant for a different session, you are so stupid you dont even know how you did it!”
“Website is not perfect, Life is not perfect…If you would work in your pathetic life on a such big project in a [sic] such busy environment with so little resources, you would know that the most important is to have usual user behavior scenarios working rather than spending time on improbable and harmless things.”
An official statement was then made by the airline’s spokesman, Stephen McNamara, which wasn’t much better: “Ryanair can confirm that a Ryanair staff member did engage in a blog discussion… …It is Ryanair policy not to waste time and energy in corresponding with idiot bloggers and Ryanair can confirm that it won’t be happening again. Lunatic bloggers can have the blog sphere all to themselves as our people are far too busy driving down the cost of air travel.”
Our suggestion: You might be right, they might be right, nobody cares- it’s vitally important not to get involved in tit for tat spats in the public sphere. Instead calm the situation down and, if necessary, apologise, rather than offend- that goes for customers, press and bloggers alike.

JetBlue – Passenger (or customer) rights

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As an ice storm hit the New York metropolitan area in 2007, flights into and out of JFK were severely affected, with some delays lasting up to 11 hours. Rather than arranging for its passengers to be escorted from planes sitting idle on the runway and sent back inside the terminal building, though, JetBlue decided to keep them onboard, with almost 1,000 travellers growing increasingly annoyed as toilets became unfit for human use and snacks ran out. Finally they were taken into the airport, but the damage was already done. Politicians debated the situation for weeks after, and the airline eventually came up with its own Bill of Passenger Rights, in which it states people should be deplaned after five hours.
Our suggestion: Always consider how your actions, or lack thereof, will impact on the comfort of your customers. Without them you’re nothing.

Jet 2 – (Potentially) dangerous giveaway

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Budget airline Jet2 decided to send a load of promotional staff up to Derby, dressed in branded red bodysuits, and instruct them to run through the city’s streets so the public could find them and claim free holiday prizes. Sadly, the firm did not anticipate the fact people would go slightly berserk, rugby tackle others to the ground and assault the well-meaning employees in the hope of grabbing a toll-free trip.
Our suggestion: It might seem like a great idea, but unless you can guarantee pulling it off safely, probably best err on the side of caution.