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Talking Crisis Management with Brussels Airlines

23rd Jan 2017
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For Brussels Airlines, customers have always been the number one priority. Passengers are called “guests,” and the company has made it a goal to be known as the most personal airline service on the market. When the Brussels Airport was bombed on March 22, 2016 — marking the biggest crisis in Brussels Airlines history — customers remained the number one priority for the company and its approximately 3,500 employees.

I sat down with Brussels Airlines Media Relations Manager Kim Daenen and Social Media Manager Claudia Tluk to discuss crisis strategy, customer care and beyond. Here’s what they had to say:

Q: How was your social media customer service team organized prior to the crisis that took place on March 22?

Kim: We had a very modest sized team prior to March 22 — three spokespeople, a social media manager and an internal communications manager. We had one person responsible for marketing and communications on social media and two agents serving all social customer service requests. On a typical day in early 2016, we received between 200 and 300 social customer service requests a day, which two agents could handle easily.

In the weeks leading up to the attack, Brussels Airlines was riding on a very positive wave. We were turning a profit for the first time in six years and unveiled a special Magritte aircraft livery at a large press event on March 21 . It was a very joyous time for the company, with a lot to celebrate. But at Brussels Airlines, we deal with crisis on a daily basis. It’s just the nature of the industry. We prepare for all kinds of scenarios — from a bird strike to an accident. That said, nothing could have prepared us for what happened on the 22nd of March.

Q: What happened the day of the attack? As a customer service team, what were your priorities and how did you handle those first few hours?

Kim: On our way into work on March 22, we heard that there was a bomb alert and, soon after, saw images on social media of the exact space where our airport ticketing desk used to be. But it was gone.

We went into crisis mode immediately. With a crisis checklist already in place, we began by swapping our regular logo with a grayscale logo to show we were in mourning. We put an immediate halt on all advertisements running in print and online. The next step was to get our first messages out into the community. As a general rule in media relations, you should have your first press statement out within an hour after the event. Of course, on social media an hour is an eternity. Everyone is already talking about what has happened and waiting for a statement.

We were able to get our first social media statement out after about 40 minutes. It felt long, but we wanted to have our facts straight before discussing with the public. We then put out press statements and the CEO expressed his sympathy, which is hugely important. All of this was happening in the outside world. Internally, we were of course also focusing a lot on finding our colleagues and customers who had been wounded at the airport — our number one priority.

Q: How did your strategy shift over the next few days?

Kim: Following the initial wake of the crisis, customer communication became our number one priority. We put an alert message on our website informing guests about the status of their flights and offering up alternative solutions. Over the next few days, we realized that those first few messages we sent out were very factual and quite dry, probably because we ourselves were also overwhelmed by what had happened. We decided to shift gears, showing as much sympathy and compassion as possible in all following communications.

Q: What role did social media play in communicating important information to your guests?

Claudia: We received 5,700 incoming requests on the first day of the crisis. To handle this massive increase in inbounds, we scaled up our social media team to 45 people, eventually growing to more than 100 — all were colleagues who volunteered to come in and help, from pilots to ground staff, to colleagues from legal. Even our CCO and CFO came to help out whenever they had a few moments to spare, in between their meetings in the crisis room. We trained them using 10 minute tutorials on how to work through requests. We then divided our expanded social customer service team into two groups: the frontline, answering all practical questions, and then a specialized team for handling booking requests.

Between March 22 and April 10 (when Brussels Airlines was able to resume regular operations from the Brussels Airport), we handled 66,000 customer questions on social media and we were able to answer each one of them on a 24/7 basis. During that period of time, we received 1,300 compliments for our services, which was hugely important to keep our colleagues going. They knew their efforts and long days were being recognized.

Q: What impact did the crisis have on your brand?  

Kim: A crisis of this size will always have a big impact on your brand. Sometimes it will be positive and sometimes it will be negative. While you never wish for a crisis, it can be an opportunity to really show your commitment to customer experience. The way we engaged with our community was well received and, ultimately, supported our message that we offer personalized experiences and care about our guests above all else.

Q: What advice do you have for companies building or updating their crisis strategies?

Claudia: Have a checklist prepared and keep a printed copy on your desk. That list should contain an order of operations in case of a crisis, along with any necessary assets like statement templates and training videos. Although you can never be prepared for what will happen, you can adapt quickly as long as you have guidelines in place.

It’s also helpful to have a social media crash course ready in case you need to bring more hands on deck. While social media comes naturally to some of us, others aren’t as familiar with the character limits and tone of voice requirements. Have a plan in place for getting volunteers up to speed quickly.

Finally, learn from other companies in your industry and even those outside of your market. Keep an eye on how these brands respond to crisis — what works well and what doesn’t. Keep updating your strategy and always put your customer first.

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