Mario Sundar

LinkedIn's 2nd PR hire. These are my thoughts on products, public relations, and startups.

Spin, Lies, and Airbnb

The one thing more absurd than the debt-ceiling cliffhanger these days, is the unraveling AirBnb PR fiasco that’s been getting more bizarre with each passing day.

What really stands out is the botched PR response to an unfortunate customer experience, with multiple points of view obfuscating reality and closure.

The Rashomon effect is made worse by spin...

Airbnb is a service that helps people rent out their homes or apartments or boats (yes, boats) to other “real people”. And last month one of these apartment rentals resulted in a scary home destruction:

Three difficult days ago, I returned home from an exhausting week of business travel to an apartment that I no longer recognized. To an apartment that had been ransacked.

With heart pounding and stomach churning, I slowly swung the door open as both a pungent odor and the full realization of what had occurred washed over me: this wasn’t just a random break-in. My home had been burglarized, vandalized and thoroughly trashed by a “traveler” I connected with via the online rental agency, airbnb.com.

The post really goes into detail on the level of destruction in a home, a nightmare situation none of us would ever want to step into. That was a month ago. More recently though, in the past few days, there’s been a storm of back-and-forth blog posts from both the company and victim of that destruction. So, let’s try peeling the layers here…

Airbnb CEO, Brian Chesky, wrote a pretty reasonable guest post on TechCrunch, pointing out the company’s efforts to help the victim (“EJ”), pointing to a resolution and offering next steps to assuage other users’ concerns. That’s a textbook response to such situations and in the face of it does seem adequate. But, that soon turned into a crazy back-and-forth this past weekend when the user wrote a second post refuting some of his claims.

He said. She said.

Airbnb CEO: “Our first concern was to make sure our host was safe.”

Which may not have necessarily meant they help secure her safety.

EJ (victim): “I am not clear here if Chesky is trying to convey the message that Airbnb was involved in securing my safety, but the company was not. My safety was secured by my own efforts.”

Here’s another:

Airbnb CEO: With a single booking, one person’s malicious actions victimized our host and undermined what had been – for 2 million nights – a case study demonstrating that people are fundamentally good.

As TechCrunch points out, it makes it sound like that was the first time that happened, but apparently not. Granted these break-ins (two in the public eye) may be more the exception than the norm but the way the media works is to focus on the extreme situations — whether good or bad. And, this is one such terrible experience that makes for a riveting human interest story. I think Robert Scoble does a good job of pointing out how companies should deal with customer service disasters of this type.

But, I digress. The back-and-forth between the CEO and the renter gets ugly with the following back-and-forth:

Airbnb CEO: “We have been in close contact with her ever since, and have worked with the authorities to help find a resolution. While we are not at liberty to discuss the details during the investigation, we understand that with our help, a suspect is now in custody, and our information will now become important evidence.”

In her 2nd post, published on July 28, EJ refutes that claim:

EJ: As of today, July 28, I have received no confirmation from either the San Francisco Police Department or the District Attorney that any culprit is in custody for my case.

One month ago an individual was apprehended, however as far as I know, this person was transferred to a neighboring jurisdiction for prosecution of previous crimes, and no charges or arrest warrant has been issued for my case within San Francisco County. If this has changed and Chesky’s statement is in fact true, I have not been made aware by city officials.

She then goes on to suggest that things were even worse:

EJ (victim): And I was – but no longer am – scared of Airbnb’s reaction, the pressure and the veiled threat I have received from them since I initially blogged this story.

On June 29 I posted my story, and June 30 thus marks the last day I heard from the customer service team regarding my situation. In fact, my appointed “liaison” from Airbnb stopped contacting me altogether just three days after I reported the crime, on June 25, for reasons that are unknown to me. I have heard nothing from her since.

Wow?! And, that would contradict what their CEO had said earlier: “We have been in close contact with her ever since”. And…

EJ: During this call and in messages thereafter, he (ed. another co-founder, not Brian) requested that I shut down the blog altogether or limit its access, and a few weeks later, suggested that I update the blog with a “twist” of good news so as to “complete[s] the story”.

If true, that’s just sad, disappointing and plain wrong.

Closure & Moving Forward

At the end of the day, I think both parties (Airbnb and the renter) find themselves in an extremely difficult time in their lives. Airbnb just raised another round of funding and is on a hot streak, but the renter has just lost her peace of mind, home, and belongings (a month ago) with no end in sight.

What makes matters awful, is the company’s attempts at making this go away by utilizing everything from traditional spin to suggestions on shutting down the victim’s blog. Given how emotional this can be (for the aggrieved party) this needs to be dealt with in a considerate manner without coming across as pressurizing someone whose life has been upended recently. Interestingly enough, that customer service approach works in the best interests of the business as well.

Once again, I recommend you read Scoble’s post on a few ways to deal with this crisis.

For now, I think the onus for the company should be on getting some real closure in this unfortunate event, ensuring there aren’t any more random rants from their side, and an official update on their blog once there’s some real news to share. Most importantly, given Airbnb’s business model, the institution of a serious customer service policy (like at Zappos) seems essential.

All else is spin.

What do you think Airbnb should do? Tweet me @mariosundar.

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