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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"It’s Alright, Ma. I’m only Bleeding!"

When Bob Dylan penned and composed "It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding" he didn’t have the PR folks at Virgin Atlantic airlines in mind. But the song could be applied to the airline’s recent PR-driven consumer tiff.

Seems a Virgin Atlantic spokesman issued a public statement that its customers were happy with what he termed “a smooth transition” to a new online reservation system. The resulting firestorm made it clear that many customers not only did not like the new system, they also felt the statement was uncaring and unsympathetic. They were more than happy to publicize their discontent on Virgin's Facebook page wall. The airline posted responses such as: Some guests are experiencing web errors with our online check-in tool and are unable to check in or print boarding passes. Our sincere apologies. If you encounter an error, please check in at the airport. Thanks for your patience."

To our way of thinking, it doesn't take a communications expert to know that technology changes in any consumer-facing industry – e.g. a new online banking protocol, changes to the Facebook interface, iGoogle's new "look," etc. – generally bring an assortment of glitches and complaints, especially from loyal customers who have grown accustomed to a certain way of interacting with a brand. Most people initially don't like change when it comes to their habits no matter how supposedly  "good for them" the change might be. And certainly a cardinal rule of communications that CommCore reminds its clients of is never to assume that your customers or audiences are happy just because you are.

There are ways of ascribing success to an initiative while acknowledging that customers may need some time to recognize the long-term benefit. For example, here's what the airline could have said:  "We are pleased with the initial rollout of the new system. We are carefully keeping an eye out for glitchesWe also monitor customer reactions, and can address concerns on our website or toll-free phone number."  We think that would have been more consumer-friendly and sensitive.

How would you have handled a statement about a major technology change that affects hundreds of thousands of customers?

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