One of the cardinal rules of crisis communications is to do everything you can not to become the face of a negative issue that affects multiple people or companies. That is a lesson Delta CEO Ed Bastian apparently doesn’t fully appreciate.
By now, almost everyone has seen the viral “Recline-gate” video featuring two American Airlines passengers:
The first 24 hours of the debate centered on who was in the wrong – the women who reclined her seat or the man behind her who repeatedly pushed her seat in protest. That debate quickly changed, however, as people began to realize it was the airlines who created this Stanford Prison Experiment-esque scenario. The airlines are the bad guys here.
American Airlines no doubt was preparing to manage the negative publicity, but then they were given a gift. Delta’s CEO appeared on CNBC and was asked who was right. He weighed in and said that he thought reclining was reasonable, but that you should ask permission first. That answer reignited a new debate. Instantly, Delta became the face of the issue. Even though the viral video was of American Airlines passengers, the general public will associate Delta with the lack of knee room on airplanes.
Meanwhile, you can bet American Airlines CEO Doug Parker will be hiding out for a week or two. He’s more than happy to let media and social media replay the clip of Delta’s CEO over and over again. To paraphrase Napoleon, never get in the way of a competitor who is making a mistake.