“Wow!” and “What a corker!” would have been understandable responses to the quite extraordinary public statement on the crisis unfolding at London Heathrow Airport from the airline Emirates.
For those who haven’t been following the story many airports, not just in the UK, are struggling to handle the sharp bounce back in international travel following the Covid-19 lockdown. Almost mothballing air travel for such a prolonged period of time has been tough to manage and, understandably, many airport workers have chosen to move on into other industries. The labour market is a tight one at present and finding a new job has been easier than usual.
But replacing workers at our airports has been a challenge. Not only because of the competition for good people but also because working at an airport is not like most other industries. There are security checks, for example, that need to be completed.
Given these challenges London Heathrow took the decision to limit the number of passengers from the airport to just 100,000 a day until September. In their statement, Emirates claimed they were given just 36 hours to comply with the travel cap which they characterised as an “airmageddon” situation due to the “incompetence” of Heathrow airport’s management team. Goodness!
Quite apart from the language, there is another issue that makes this statement unusual.
Obviously, the decision of London Heathrow affects a number of airlines but to date, none other has sought to issue a statement quite like that of Emirates although the usually vocal Ryanair has also been pretty damning from the side-lines. So, it was clearly a strategic decision by Emirates to ‘out’ itself in this very overt way.
A completely different crisis scenario but another example of this happening was with Tesco during the horsemeat scandal back in 2013. Essentially, parts of the meat supply chain had become corrupt and cheaper horse meat was being passed off as being beef and other meat products more to the taste of British consumers. Several retailers were affected but only Tesco chose to take a very high-profile stance, including paying for full page adverts in national newspapers to apologise for the incident.
The other interesting point with Emirates’ response is that it was an attempt to get ahead of a crisis. For Emirates, customers turning up at London Heathrow and not being able to board their planes as they had expected would indeed be a crisis. As the airline pointed out, there was the added complexity for them of 70% of their customers arriving at Heathrow but headed beyond Dubai to a range of destinations, and it would be an impossible challenge to find them new onward connections at such short notice.
When in a crisis, one of the crucial components of successful communication is the construction of a crisis narrative, sometimes called an apologia, although that doesn’t necessarily mean saying sorry. For many years, the North American academic, William L. Benoit, studied the rhetoric used in such narratives by US companies, politicians, celebrities and others to spot the common approaches used. This led to his general theory of image restoration. What is interesting about the Emirates statement is how many of these we can see despite the fact that Emirates appear to be seeking to avert as much as deal with a crisis.
The airline kicks off its statement with a clear example of what Benoit called “bolstering”:
Bolstering is used to remind stakeholders of the prior good reputation of the organisation. It is usually an attempt to minimise the impact of what has happened or at the very least put it into the context of a previous good record.
In the next section we see Emirates pointing out that their action in issuing such a statement can be excused on the grounds of “provocation”:
“Shift the blame”
Then we see an obvious example of an attempt to “shift the blame” for the disruption that may be to come firmly onto London Heathrow. Really the whole point of the exercise:
Shifting the blame is usually a risky strategy. Many of us can remember BP’s attempt to shift the blame for the explosion on its Deepwater Horizon oil rig on to the rig’s constructors and operator. That didn’t go so well.
The Emirates statement goes on to exhibit what Benoit called “transcendence”. This is putting the crisis into a wider societal context and highlighting the wider impact and usually the deeper cause.
But when we get to the final line, we see what can only really be seen as a threat – not a rhetorical device we find in the Benoitian armoury.
Given that airport workers do not grow on trees, it was unlikely Heathrow would be able to resolve its problems in the required timeframe and given that Emirates would hardly risk trying to fly its customers to and from an airport where they risk being stranded, it was perhaps not surprising that in the end, the airline and airport did sit down to try to thrash out a way forward.
So, the jury is out a little on what Emirates achieved but they certainly made it very clear indeed to their passengers and wider stakeholders who they believe should be held to account for this particular crisis.
Author: Chris Tucker