Fallout at Frontier: A Case Study in Crisis Communications

If you live in Colorado, or have flown Frontier through Denver International Airport lately, you’re probably aware of the company’s troubles with a new passenger-management system after outsourcing 1,160 below-ramp and customer-service positions at DIA. A deluge of customer complaints against Frontier Airlines has the Better Business Bureau taking a closer look at the airline’s rating.

Founder of a Denver-based pubic relations firm and crisis communications expert, Jon Pushkin shares his take on the situation with Frontier Airlines.

How well do you think Frontier is handling this situation from a public relations perspective? What grade would you give them?

Communications Problem? We can help

JP: Frontier is facing a serious threat to its reputation that could result in long-term damage to the company’s brand and bottom line. Its response has been pretty slow, and it hasn’t been doing a good job of communicating to customers. So far, Frontier gets a failing grade.

What, if anything, has the company done well so far? What could they do better?

JP: Frontier has at least acknowledged that there are problems, and it has posted information on Facebook and Twitter. But the message “We are trying to solve the problem.” when the company seems overwhelmed and the problems keep mounting is not believable. Frontier needs to really focus on customer service. It needs to respond faster. It needs to let customers know Frontier cares and is committed to doing whatever it takes to make things right.

Do you think Frontier has squandered the goodwill of its customers? How can the company use public relations to improve customer sentiment?

JP: Two things happen in any crisis that can damage a brand’s reputation. One is a loss of credibility. When people think they can’t trust you, it doesn’t matter what you tell them. Frontier has clearly lost the trust of its customers.

The other issue is when people think you don’t care. Frontier needs to demonstrate that nothing is more important to them than its customers’ satisfaction. It needs to be authentic and sincere. And, that message should come from the top of the organization, not from inexperienced employees. Instead of hiding behind “technical problems,” Frontier executives should be personally communicating to upset customers that they are the company’s top priority.

A Denver Post article said the company’s Twitter account was overrun with complaints from disgruntled customers. As a crisis communications expert, how would you advise a client to deal with this type of situation—when unhappy customers hijack social media channels?

JP: The problem is really that Frontier has lost the trust of those customers. They feel like they are not being heard and no one is helping them. Dealing with this requires an all-hands-on-deck-response. Everyone on Frontier’s communications team should be responding to every complaint as quickly as possible with “How can I help you?” “Here’s my direct phone number.” This is not the time to be defensive or provide an impersonal response.

Could a crisis communications plan have minimized the fallout from the transition?

JP: A crisis communications plan can help an organization anticipate potential scenarios and be better prepared to respond when they happen. A plan ensures everyone on the crisis team knows their responsibilities and their assignments, templates for talking points and press releases are drafted, there is a clear crisis communications protocol and everyone knows the steps to follow. The team prepares with mock interviews, so they feel less nervous during the real thing. That way when there is an actual crisis, the organization is ready to respond effectively and minimize the damage.

Communications Problem? We can help

How can organizations be more proactive when it comes to crisis communications?

JP: Organizations generally don’t consider crisis communications plans until they are in the middle of a crisis. By then it’s too late. A crisis is anything that can damage the reputation of your organization. It can happen to anyone, anytime. Organizations can start by understanding where their threats lie. Then, think about how a reasonable person would expect a responsible organization to respond. There are many Denver public relations firms, but not all specialize in crisis communications. At Pushkin PR, it is one of our specialties. We work with a variety of clients to draft plans and conduct trainings.

What lessons can organizations learn from this situation with Frontier?

JP: There are a few important lessons we can learn from Frontier’s experience:

  1. Have a crisis communications plan in place, and be ready to respond quickly.
  2. Trust and integrity are critical. Take responsibility, and don’t blame others for the problems. Express compassion before you trot out excuses.
  3. Don’t ask low-level, less experienced employees to deliver the message to angry stakeholders. It needs to come from the top.
  4. Communicate clearly and often using multiple communication channels.
  5. Stick to the facts. Be accurate and honest. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.

Want to get some more specific advice? Get in touch, and our team will create a crisis communications proposal that addresses your organization’s concerns and potential threats.


Author: Maribeth Neelis