Much has been said about Spirit Airlines’ proposal to charge passengers $45 for any regular carry-on baggage. Instead of rehashing the pros/cons of this new policy, let’s analyze the company’s move from the public relations standpoint:
• Think before inciting controversy. Airlines lost a staggering amount of money last year, yet it’s amazing how tone-deaf they are in announcing remedial measures to capture lost income. Just think back to Ryanair’s proposals to charge passengers to use the airplane bathroom, or to force passengers to stand during flights. If the new policy will likely incite controversy, then huddle with your publicist and think 10 steps ahead to anticipate how your customers will react. Don’t get caught flat-footed by an easily repeatable/re-tweetable meme. Standing on flights, really…
• Media training is exercise to prevent foot-in-mouth syndrome. Now that we know why these policies generate radioactive criticism, we must understand how to avoid saying really, really stupid things. Media training will help the spokesperson nuance the message to minimize blowback. Customers cringe when they hear about new inflated fees, so don’t patronize them as CEO Ben Baldanza did by saying something this idiotic: “The beauty of [the $45 fee] is [passengers] will do what they think is best for them and will now have the choice.” Um, “choice”? What about choosing not to anger and alienate your customers?
• Different PR disciplines are needed to deal with different PR problems. What started as Spirit Airlines’ need for crisis management has now morphed into a public affairs issue, as DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and U.S. Senator Charles Schumer both criticized the new fee. Indeed, LaHood clearly is contemplating some regulatory response, given that he thinks Spirit Airlines doesn’t “care about their customers.”
Most companies understand the importance of PR, but what Spirit Airlines shows us is the importance of hiring publicists who can wear multiple hats. Don’t roll out your controversial policy until you’re sure you’ve got all your PR bases covered.