When Asiana Airlines flight 214 crash-landed near San Francisco early this month, Asiana had plenty of liability exposures to deal with: the crash caused injuries and three deaths, which shook the public’s faith in the company. But Asiana wasn’t the only organization whose reputation took a hit after the crash.
How One Intern's Bad Joke Turned into a PR Fiasco
On July 6, following the Asiana crash, Bay Area TV station KTVU aired a broadcast that exposed the channel to serious professional liability.
When reporting on the crash, a KTVU anchor claimed the pilots' names were "Bang Ding Ow" and "Captain Sum Ting Wong." Almost immediately, viewers and station execs alike realized that they were the victims of a prank. As soon as the names hit the airwaves, officials began pointing fingers and blaming each other for failing to catch the mistake.
Nothing says insensitivity quite like a racist joke that makes light of tragic deaths, and the event led more than one commentator to question how the incident happened in the first place.
KTVU's official explanation is that an intern at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) confirmed the names to the station. (For more about managing intern-related risks, read "Working with Interns This Summer? Know the Business Risks.") KTVU then broadcast the names almost immediately, without considering the possibility that they were a joke. By the time it retracted and apologized for the racist reporting, the TV station's reputation and respectability were already damaged.
Avoid PR Disasters: Train Your Workforce the Right Way
This case stresses how important it is to train your employees properly to manage the unique liabilities of your business. For instance, businesses that focus on media or public relations should make sure that all employees and interns appreciate the seriousness of a defamation / libel lawsuit. Your workforce must see that their public statements can have unintended (and potentially costly) consequences.
Though it may not have encountered an event as public and dramatic as the KTVU incident, your business may have had to deal with the headache of a stray social media post that goes viral when you can least afford it (remember that Coldstone Creamery employee’s racist comments during the election last year?). Some small businesses may not have a digital conduct policy in place for social media posting at all; to make things worse, your employees may not be tech-savvy enough to realize that their tweets and status updates could damage the reputation of your business.
Large companies already understand these risks, and small businesses should also learn how online statements can hurt a business's public reputation, even when they’re not made on a business’s behalf. The good news is that as a small-business owner, you can manage employee-related liabilities and avoid high-profile lawsuits by establishing a solid conduct policy. At the very least, your business's employee training program should:
- Establish clearly defined behavioral guidelines for addressing the public.
- Educate staff members about the legal implications of libel and slander.
- Model and positively reinforce acceptable behaviors.
- Establish procedures for addressing and apologizing for any negative incidents that do occur.
But even the best-trained (and best-behaved) employees can make mistakes that trigger lawsuits. And sometimes customers are simply in the mood to sue someone. To further protect your business’s assets and revenue from the costs associated with presenting a defense to a libel or slander lawsuit, be sure to invest in General Liability Insurance that includes coverage for advertising and other non-physical injuries.