How to turn a small crisis into a major PR triumph


Here’s a story of two companies with two very different approaches to communicating with their customers during a minor crisis – in both cases a service failure. The surprise is that it’s the customer facing one – Virgin Active gyms – that got it so badly wrong. 

The sub-zero temperatures of the last week have left their mark on Britain’s infrastructure and like others our area was affected by a problem with the power supply. It’s never welcome to be told your electricity is about to be cut off while engineers deal with an urgent safety issue. So I can’t say I was too happy when I got a text from UK Power Networks to everyone in the area giving us notice that we might be affected. 

Half an hour later my wife and I were in darkness, with no heating and no way of cooking. So we went onto their website and both signed up to their text update service so we’d know how long it was going to be off for. We immediately got a text apologising for the power cut, explaining what they knew about the problem, the exact time they had learned about it and the time they had dispatched engineers. 

Over the next few hours we got regular updates with information about the nature of the problem and an estimated time for when they expected the power to go back on. We lit candles, played board games and ordered in takeaway food. It was almost fun. Bang on time,  five hours later, the power went back on. What could have been a really annoying and frustrating experience was turned into a net gain for a company I had never thought about before (it’s not who I get my electricity bills from) but I now have a pretty high regard for.

Contrast this to the way my local gym, run by Virgin Active, handled the failure of its hot water supply before Christmas (I know....first world problems etc). It was only after three days of no hot water and mounting frustration among members, many of whom head straight to work from the gym in the morning and rely on being able to shower there, that we got the first text from Virgin informing us that there was no hot water and apologising for the inconvenience. No explanation of what was wrong or what they were doing to fix it. Then nothing. No follow-up, no information about what the problem was, what they were doing to fix it and not even an estimate of when it might be restored.

When I suggested to the guy at the front desk that they needed to communicate with us every day so we knew what was happening and that one of the reasons people were getting so angry was that they weren’t giving us any information, he looked at me with total incomprehension. 

Three days later the hot water was restored and lo and behold we got our second text telling us the water was back on. Again there was no explanation.

The amazing thing is that UK Power Networks is the one that has a truly captive market here. I have no choice about who manages the electricity distribution network in my area, whereas there are a lot of alternative gyms locally I could switch to and indeed VA has been losing members because it is more expensive than most of its competitors. The likelihood of me doing the same is now that much higher. True UKPN is around three times bigger than VA in terms of revenue but how much does it cost to send a few texts out?

Perhaps the real difference is that one company values its corporate reputation and has put some thought into keeping its stakeholders onside, the other appears not to value it at all


Stephen BevanComment