AirBnB crisis offers a lesson in follow through

A ransacked home, a distraught customer and a response that equated to a corporate shrug of the shoulders dropped online start-up AirBnB in the middle of it earlier this year. After fumbling their initial response, the company’s subsequent actions and follow through has provided a textbook example of how to manage crises in the social age.

AirBnB is a site that connects users around the world who have or are looking for short-term accommodation—everything from a couch or a spare room to a whole apartment or villa. It’s kind of like a cross between Facebook and In fact, you can log in with your Facebook account to avoid creating yet another account. It’s the next step in evolution from Craigslist.

The rise of social enterprises like AirBnB has created a class of consumer who, rather than seeing themselves as purely economic actors in a transaction, consider themselves part of a community. In these environments there are no serious threats because the community is self-regulating and quashes any negative elements. It’s a social version of free market ideology. Trust is given over wholly by many to what is ultimately a marketplace that runs on goodwill. AirBnB definitely falls into this category.

The recent crisis highlights how unprepared for the worst many of these start-ups are.

AirBnB’s initial response—which equated to basically saying ‘not our problem’—was one of an inexperienced business that had never even thought to consider a crisis such as this could occur. To their credit, their follow-up was a text book case for handling a situation such as this – they apologised, put their CEO and founder out as the messenger, and amended policy and procedures within the organisation to address the problem.

They spoke to their audience in the forums they were using and communicated directly with their membership base—how I first became aware of the incident, having used AirBnB to find an apartment while in NYC last year.

All in all, a textbook response, straight out of the pages of crisis management 101. Where AirBnB has shown some initiative is in their follow-up.

Most companies caught out by a crisis follow the well worn path of acknowledgement, acceptance and apology. The better ones will throw in an action of some kind to prevent future instances happening again. Mea culpa complete, case closed, move on.

AirBnB’s response has been refreshing in that they have not seen the case as closed. While their revised response arrested the negative coverage stemming from their initial mishandling of the incident, they haven’t seen the matter as closed. The company has seen this as a real opportunity to address a problem within their systems and has called on their 2 million community of members to let them know what they’d like to see.

In a follow-up post on the AirBnB blog, CEO Brian Chenky laid out phase two of the changes to increase security on the site and laid out a range of possibilities for further improvements, asking members for their feedback before they embark upon a third stage of changes. The company followed that up with the announcement of 40 new safety features, including a $50,000 insurance guarantee against property damage.

This goes beyond the textbook mea culpa to actually demonstrate the company’s commitment to working with their members and maintaining the faith they have in the system AirBnB provides.

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