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Crisis Communication 101: The silent treatment

You’ll hear couples complain about it.

Often to their friends.

As they explain how they were met with ‘the silent treatment’.

Communication ends.

Suspicion grows.

Resentment festers.

But what if a company is dishing out the silent treatment to customers?

Should we expect a similar reaction?

With British Airways, it should have been a lesson on how to communicate in a crisis.

Instead, the crisis deepened through bad communication.

What happened?

How to communicate in a crisis, crisis communication Glasgow, crisis communication Edinburgh, British Airways, what happened

British Airways (BA) pilots have called a strike over three separate days in September.

BA contacted customers to tell them their flight was cancelled.

Some booked on alternative airlines, knowing BA would have to refund them.

But then they received an email from BA to say the flight was back on again.

As one customer put it, they were “uncancelling” the flight.

So those who had re-booked may face a fight to get BA to pay for their new arrangements.

That all sounds a mess.

But worse was to come.

‘The silent treatment’ from BA.

Failing to explain the contradictory emails.

Failing to say how many customers were affected.

And failing to explain where they now stood.

BA carries 145,000 passengers each day across 280 planes.

The capacity for something to go badly wrong is huge.

But when it’s down to poor communication, it’s avoidable.

Because major companies should know how to communicate in a crisis.

When something goes wrong

How to communicate in a crisis, when something goes wrong, crisis communication Edinburgh, crisis communication Glasgow, crowded terminal

So what could BA have done better?


At Pink Elephant Communications, we suggest three simple steps to avoid confusion.

They’re the backbone of the crisis communication seminars.

The media training courses.

As well as the assertiveness skills courses we run from our Glasgow studios.

And across the world, every week of the year.

They are:

1. Tell customers the full facts, as early as you can

How to communicate in a crisis, customers, busy terminal, crisis communication Edinburgh, crisis communication Glasgow,

BA could have said it was deciding which services could still run.

Assessing who would be affected on each strike day.

And ask customers to re-book, only when it was certain which flights would be cancelled.

2. Have a structure in place to deal with the calls

How to communicate in a crisis, call centre, have structure, crisis communication Edinburgh, crisis communication Glasgow

One customer complained of phoning the call centre over 70 times in one day.

Without getting through.

BA was keen to say how many extra call-handlers were drafted in.

However, that number has failed to cope with demand.

Enough call-handlers must be in place as soon as news breaks.

3. Share with traditional and social media what you’re telling customers

how to communicate in a crisis, share with traditional media, press, crisis communication Edinburgh, crisis communication Glasgow

It can feel like the media is attacking you when things go wrong.

It feels like you’re in the firing line.

But what if you contact the media to explain the situation?

You become a trusted source.

And the media wants to hear your viewpoint.

The media is free of charge to use.

So plug into it and reach as many as possible with your statements.

Regret, reason, remedy

How to communicate in a crisis, British Airways, regret reason remedy, crisis communication Edinburgh, crisis communication Glasgow

Finally, any messed-up situation will get better when applying three words:




BA needs to say sorry for the strike and the confusion.

That’s regret.

They need to explain their mistake in backtracking on cancelled flights.

That’s reason.

Then they need to offer a solution that satisfies customers.

That’s remedy.

That’s how to communicate in a crisis.

But if BA insists on the silent treatment, the relationship between the company and their customers will only sour.



Bill McFarlan is co-Founder and Executive Chairman at Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.

You can read his full profile here.


Photos by Trend hype / Mark Hodson Photos / CC BY / cartoixa / CC BY-NC on Trend Hype.

28th August 2019 Featured in: Blog, Crisis management training blogs By:

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