Asiana Airlines: An Unsympathetic Press Release

Almost six hours after an Asiana Airlines flight crashed upon landing at San Francisco International Airport today, the airline finally posted a press release about the incident to its website and Google+ page.

Considering that at least two people are confirmed dead and at least 40 more were badly injured, you might have thought that the airline would have offered an expression of sympathy to its passengers, as well as to affected family members and friends. After all, one of the seven rules of a crisis is to align your communications with any victims.

But it didn’t. Instead, the press release reads as a cold recitation of facts.

San Francisco Plane Crash

Asiana Airlines flight OZ214 (Aircraft Registration HL7742) departed Incheon International Airport on July 6, 2013 at 16:35 (Korea time) bound for San Francisco. Only July 7, 2013 at 11:28 (Local time) an accident occurred as OZ214 was making a landing on San Francisco International Airport’s runway 28.

There were a total of 291 passengers (19 business class, 272 travel class) and 16 cabin crew aboard. The majority of the passengers were comprised of 77 Korean citizens, 141 Chinese citizens, 61 US citizens, 1 Japanese citizen, etc. for a total of 291 people.  

Asiana Airlines is currently investigating the specific cause of the incident as well as any injuries that may have been sustained to passengers as a result. Asiana Airlines will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation of all associated government agencies and to facilitate this cooperation has established an emergency response center at its headquarters.

At this point no additional information has been confirmed. New developments will be announced as more information becomes available.

You might think that the airline didn’t comment on the victims intentionally to avoid increasing the odds of litigation. Not only would that be flawed thinking on the airline’s part (an expression of sympathy is generally not regarded as an admission of guilt), but it also ignores one curious fact: the airline had already posted a tone-perfect statement on its Twitter feed:

Asiana Airlines Tweet

The problem is that more people are likely to encounter Asiana’s official press release than its earlier tweet; this sentiment should have been included in their press statement. The airline surely has a crisis communications plan in place – and any template press release for an accident should have automatically included that language.

The airline’s first press release is missing a critical piece. But it’s not too late to update it with the focus in the right place—on the victims—and should do so immediately.

Finally, to the commenter on my Twitter feed who suggested that cultural differences may be at fault here, that’s not an excuse. An international company should have a crisis communications plan in place that adheres to the best practices of each of the countries it serves.

For more, read my recent post, “In a Crisis, The Media Will Side With The Victims.”

UPDATE, JULY 6, 2013, 11:00 P.M.

A train derailed in Quebec today, resulting in numerous fatalities. The railroad’s crisis response strikes a better tone, and stands in marked contrast to the response from Asiana Airlines. Here’s an excerpt from their release:

“MMA management and employees are devastated at this news. We extend heartfelt condolences to those residents of Lac – Mégantic who have lost their homes and businesses, and particularly those who have suffered injuries and lost loved ones. We intend to have representatives on site as soon as possible to lend assistance to the community and to deal with individual issues coming out of this disaster.”

Note: Although MMA got that paragraph right, many people are criticizing MMA for waiting until the fifth paragraph in their press release before expressing sympathy to the victims, underscoring the need to put victims above all else.

UPDATE: JULY 7, 2013, 9:30 A.M.

Asiana Airlines released a new statement this morning; the first paragraph put the focus on the victims:

“We at Asiana Airlines would like express our utmost sympathy and regret for the distress experienced by the passengers of OZ flight 214 and their families as a result of this accident. We apologize most deeply.”

The release also says “Asiana Airlines has established emergency response centers to ascertain the cause of this crash and to look after injured passengers and contact their families.” Imperfect syntax aside, this release is much better than last night’s, and puts the company’s public focus where it should be–on the victims. This is a good reminder to companies that in a crisis, the victims must come first.

Note: A woman who says her brother was on the flight was upset with this post. You can read our exchange in the comments section. 

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