Sometimes, “Sorry” is Your Best Bet

As often discussed in crisis communications, organizations’ first words after a crisis are carefully analyzed by the public and the media, and can often shape the future of the situation. While some apologies may admit guilt, it is important for an organization to express their concern over the situation, and soothe people’s anger.

At about 1 p.m. yesterday, January 1, a Muslim family was taken off an AirTran flight to Orlando, Florida. Other passengers had overheard “suspicious” comments made by members of the family and reported it to their flight attendant. These comments were later said to be involving concerns about the safest place to sit on an airplane, and had no common trigger words, such as “terror,” “bomb,” “explosion,” etc. After the FBI cleared the family and deemed them safe to board the flight, AirTran declined to allow them back on.

AirTran’s first comments about the situation released in a press release contained harsh words about the family, saying they“”became irate and made inappropriate comments.” This statement can be seen as an excuse for the airline’s behavior, instead of an informative release that allowed the public to rest assured that AirTran was doing what they could to resolve the situation in a positive manner.

The FBI worked with the innocent Muslim family in booking a flight with USAirways to be transported to their destination. It was not until a day later that AirTran decided to apologize to the wrongly-accused family. In a public statement, the company said: “We regret that the issue escalated to the heightened security level it did, but we trust everyone understands that the security and the safety of our passengers is paramount.” They also apologized to the family members affected, as well as the other 95 passengers aboard the plane.

Both major and small news channels covered the story, reaching a vast amount of people throughout the nation, and most likely other countries as well. Do you think AirTran’s reputation has been damaged by this incident? Or, were the comments released today enough to soothe public opinion?

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