Airbnb – everyone’s favorite way to travel like a local. The idea of Airbnb started when Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky decided to rent out an air mattress in their living room to make a little extra cash. This small idea exploded into the monolith we see today – a company that has the hospitality industry shaking in their boots.
On their expansive lists of rentals across the globe, you can find a fairy light-adorned treehouse in Atlanta, to a refurbished windmill in Amsterdam, to a genuine castle in Ireland. It seems that with affordable prices and magical domesticity, this rental platform is all good. But with epic highs come epic lows, and with great power come great responsibility – something Airbnb has struggled to accept.
Airbnb grew so fast it’s not surprising there have had growing pains – many large companies have. They just happen to be in an industry where these growing pains can seriously impact a person’s well-being. Instead of bad PR about running out of product or production error, Airbnb has been under fire for being indirectly connected to racial profiling, fraud, and even fatalities.
We as business owners may not deal with such serious and far-reaching growing pains, but none of us will grow perfectly and without failure. So, what can we learn from Airbnb’s bad press, and how can we use that to prepare ourselves for crises?
Airbnb has continually taken the stance that they are not liable for the experience of the host or the renter – they just act as a middle man to connect two people for a symbiotic relationship. Because of that huge amount of freedom Airbnbers have when using the platform, hosts and guests alike have been able to exploit the platform to break the law and take advantage of each other.
Hosts have been able to trick guests with false profiles and phony rentals to quickly grab their payment and then fall off the grid or offer up a rental that- ahem – doesn’t live up to the hype. This has grown so commonplace, that Vice ran an investigation on a nation-wide fake Airbnb host scam.
Guests can exploit the system by threatening to leave a negative review of the rental if they don’t receive a discount. Or, guests that leave rentals in such disarray it monumentally exceeds the base-level cleaning costs.
One of the more disturbing and viral attention Airbnb has tried to combat over the past few years is the disturbingly commonplace racial profiling of guests. Due to the nature of the profile model, it is very simple to refuse guests based simply on race. This has allowed a culture of discrimination to grow, with exceedingly few options to stem the flow.
People of color have been denied available rentals that were easily filled by white people at alarming rates. In extreme cases, individuals were kicked out of their accommodations in the middle of the night, called racial slurs, and generally have a much worse experience trying to use the platform than white people. So much so, that #AirbnbWhileBlack has trended on Twitter and there is an active petition online to persuade Airbnb to take action against racist hosts.
Airbnb rentals have been experiencing disturbing trends around party violence and shootings. While these situations may be tough to connect to their business model, many people are putting some blame on Airbnb’s historically lax (or at the least, seriously backloaded) rental verification process, and not acting on the pattern soon enough.
Are these inconvenient, disturbing, and dangerous situations directly Airbnb’s fault? No – but they are learning a very important lesson: regardless of blame, companies will take the fall for choosing to ignore potential threats to their client’s and customer’s well-being, safety, and humanity.
Airbnb has been accused of initially over-blaming the hosts, guests, or situations before taking action on these more serious issues. They have walked a thin line between taking appropriate action on the digital discrimination, fraud, or danger while separating their brand from the negative practices. Critics of their actions say that real reform has come too little, too late when the lives and well-being of their users are at stake.
In the case of the widespread host scams, Airbnb has been found to keep negative information under wraps while trying to fix the issue instead of having open and clear communication on the growing problem. By ignoring the reporting and giving allegedly vague answers and solutions to victims, the victims feel like they did not have the company in their corner as they had to navigate getting a refund, new accommodations, and justice.
I’m sure many of us are thinking the same thing: “yeah all this stuff looks pretty bad… I’m still going to use Airbnb though.” But regardless of how good or convenient a product or service is, there is a threshold of what consumers are willing to put up with before they relinquish their brand loyalty and start supporting alternatives.
2019 and 2020 have been a busy time for Airbnb when it comes to policy reform and institutional change. To combat racism, Airbnb rolled out this press release which lists how Airbnb is taking action against discrimination through finding alternative accommodations for victims, increasing instant booking so hosts can’t turn away individuals based on their profile, and bias training. To address the growing number of shootings on Airbnb rental property, the company has rolled out a plan to verify every rental listing. They have banned all unauthorized house parties and released many statements and PR content on how far they’ve gone to right these wrongs.
These are great strides, and the company has found many creative ways in which they can enact real change in all of these issues. But for many people, the damage has been done. No matter how much money, time, and resources are spent on fixing the issue, for some of the victims, the lack of initial timely action is what will be remembered.
Take client complaints seriously – especially when there is a pattern. And even more especially if that pattern is connected to the respect and well-being of your customers. Catching these early-on will minimize customers feeling the need to reach out on the topic on a public platform, gaining more negative attention and call outs to any business shortfalls. If the first complaint is taken care of with actionable solutions in a timely fashion, most victims will blame the situation, instead of blaming the system.
Accept that while you were not the perpetrator, you still have your hand in the game and need to take action. Immediately separating your company from negative or damaging activity to save face may be the knee-jerk reaction, and may have been an acceptable strategy years ago. But in the age of constant global communication and information-sharing, your distance will be misconstrued as complacency.
The best course of action if you get tangled up in bad press is not necessarily to over-apologize or take the fault, but to take action. There is not much point in sharing a statement on damaging issues without connecting a plan of action to the message.
Stay open, honest, and clear with your crisis management processes. Once again, a knee-jerk reaction may be to hold your cards close to your chest until you can find out how at fault your company is. But during that investigation process, the victims grow more and more jaded, and will quickly lose trust in your ability to fix the issue. Instead of sharing vague apologies with no timeline, communicate the actions being taken to investigate and address the issue, and create timelines to communicate more info when necessary.
Creating communication stages to the crisis management process allows for less jaded customers to fall out of communication, and then create a new conversation in a much more public way. You will also minimize the number of critics questioning why the issue wasn’t looked into earlier when you are open about the conversation from the beginning.
If you have any questions on how to manage company communication – good and bad – reach out to our team!