By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions
Emirates Airline played the world’s media brilliantly this week to win a major concession in its fight with Heathrow Airport. Two statements from the Airline tell the whole story and are a playbook for winning in the court of public opinion.
In case you missed it, London Heathrow Airport (LHR) is in crisis as baggage handling issues, staff shortages, and a potential refuellers' strike are causing massive delays and missed connections, leaving passengers stranded and furious. LHR responded by blaming the airlines and demanding immediate passenger caps.
Understandably, Emirates fought back.
You can read the Airline’s first statement as a masterpiece of customer-centric communication but you’re missing the main game: It’s a strategic negotiation tool to win in the court of public opinion. The red flag for me was the aggressive language and unsubstantiated accusations – like describing one of LHR’s stats as “…a figure that appears to be plucked from thin air”.
It felt more like a rant from a drunken uncle at a wedding than corporate diplomacy. But it worked. The world’s media ate it up and poured even more heat on embattled LHR and their handling of the situation.
“Coincidentally”, the day after the first statement appeared, the two held high-level negotiations. Emirates flagged their key negotiation point loud and clear in their opening salvo – no caps on seats it had already sold. The airline won the day and was gracious in victory, releasing a second statement, in appropriate corporate speak, which garnered little or no media coverage.
So what’s the insight?
Taking a crisis to the court of public opinion is a high stakes game – it can deliver decisive victory or it can crush you to oblivion. So you have to get it right.
I’ve seen it play out with drug companies vs the Government to get meds onto the PBS, a private hospital battling a health insurance firm in contract negotiations, and even an arts company seeking more funding.
Winning is all about emotion, not logic. The only thing that matters is how people feel, not what they think. And that’s usually too scary a move for most executives to authorise.
You must position yourself as the hero of the story, with the other party painted as the wickedest villain. Your case must be as simple and gut wrenching as possible – always play that human interest card, because love and loss are trumps. But most of all load it up with conflict, make it a classic David and Goliath story with all your stakeholders rooting for you as the innocent victim.
Once in play, the only defence is to show that the “innocent victim” isn’t so innocent. But that’s an ugly media stoush and almost impossible to win. Far better to pre-empt the move by gaining empathy from the moment your crisis breaks.
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