PR Cat-astrophe: American Airlines & That Cat

by PR Coach on October 19, 2011

American Airlines has a cat-astrophe on its hands

Like most crises, this one was predictable and mostly avoidable. With the volume of passengers and cargo handled by major airlines, missing or damaged luggage is common. A missing pet should set off crisis management alarm bells all over the place but apparently not at American Airlines.

The story began when Karen Pascoe and her longhair cat Jack arrived at New York’s JFK airport for a flight to California six weeks ago. That’s when the fur began to fly.

Before boarding, American Airlines lost Jack from his carrier and after a futile search airline staff reassured Pascoe they would find and return Jack so she continued her flight. Finally, 66 hours later, she got a call from a baggage manager who said they were still searching for the fleeing feline and “the last time this happened, it took about a month to find the cat.” It seemed an inept even cavalier first response.

AA now has a full blown social media cat-astrophe on its hands.

The troubles of Occupy Wall Street pale in comparison to the 15,368+ concerned members of Jack The Cat is Lost in AA Baggage at JFK on Facebook. Why are people spending hours on emails, flyers, posting, phone calls, organizing and walking the streets for a cat that is not theirs?

Good question. Even more important, why did airline customer service managers not see this crisis coming on their radar?

American Airlines has communicated few updates but pledged to continue its search. It created a special Facebook page (UPDATE on AA’s search for Jack the Cat – September 9, 1:42 PM EST) to channel comments by Friends of Jack (FoJ) away from its main Facebook wall saying:

“As we know the dialogue will continue on Jack, we are dedicating this Note page update as the appropriate forum for discussion, where we welcome all comments and conversation about Jack.  Beginning Monday, September 12, in an effort to allow space for more general travel conversation to continue on our main Wall page, and on other customer posts, any comments related to the search for Jack should be made to Jack’s dedicated Note page (below this note).  We will delete any comments about Jack that are not made to this dedicated Jack’s page.”

Surprisingly, AA has posted no updates here and no responses to 700+ comments since Sept 9th. It continues to delete FoJ comments from its main page, aggravating even moderate followers.

What at first seemed a reasonable social media strategy is being undermined by poor or no execution. No further expressions of regret? No changes to pet handling procedures to prevent future incidents? It’s hard to see how non-responsiveness is better than frequent updates even if they were of the “no news to report” type. That would at least demonstrate caring, concern and continued effort even in the face of criticism.

Further, the incident has not been acknowledged in its newsroom, on Twitter or any other social media channel I could find.

When and if poor Jack is found, alive or not, the two possible scenarios in the media and social media are predictable.

Bad PR Lessons

There are already a few useful lessons and should-have-dones so far in this incident:

  • Apologize early; express regret publicly
  • Recognize the nature and likely response of your critics/opponents
  • Communicate frequently; tell people what you’re doing even if it’s to report “no news”
  • Use social media properly; it’s a two-way channel
  • No excuse for no response
  • Integrate communication channels
  • Change procedures; tell us, even if temporary pending review
  • Prepare for all outcomes.

In any crisis, there are four fundamental human needs that need to be addressed:

  1. Are we (or our pets) safe?
  2. Are you responding appropriately?
  3. Do you care?
  4. Can we trust you (or what you say)?

When Jack’s “incredible journey” is over, the crisis management for American Airlines will just be starting. It’s one thing for management to feel they need to focus on running a safe, billion dollar airline. It’s quite another to show you don’t care in a business built on caring about the details.

Based on response to date, this feels awfully like another iconic case called “United Breaks Guitars” or other epic social media fails.

Selected Media Coverage

Here’s a quick selection of media coverage for reference:

Unhappy Jack! American Airlines’ Meowing PR Headache [The New York Observer]

Jack the Cat Has Been Lost at JFK for Over a Month; Cat Lovers Continue Awareness Efforts [The New York Observer]

Why Do 15,000 People Care About a Missing Cat At JFK? One Word: Facebook. [BetaBeat]

Lots more crisis management and online crisis pr resources in The PR Coach Library. Sign up for the blog for regular PR tips, tactics and insight or get it via your favorite RSS reader.

Author: Jeff Domansky

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