Another week, another PR crisis
comes by way of the Quixotic, pie-in-the-sky Silicon Valley startup Airbnb
, which enables people to rent their apartments, bedrooms, even living room floors to complete strangers, with little to no background check of that person’s character.
Think about how absurd that concept sounds.
The crisis in question involved a San Francisco woman, known only as EJ, who blogged
that she was the victim of a heinous property crime by a guest who arranged to stay there through Airbnb. In what is being called “#ranscackgate
,” Airbnb has, perhaps not surprisingly, totally flubbed
EJ followed up her original post with one
claiming that Airbnb tried to persuade her to remove the post and that the company failed to adequately address the issue.
Robert Scoble, in a post on Google+
, outlined lessons from the crisis, among them that Airbnb didn’t have a single point of contact, that the CEO addressed the crisis through the press alone, that it failed to treat EJ with respect, and—perhaps most important—it didn’t “fix the freaking problem.”
Looks like somebody at Airbnb was listening. On Monday, the company’s CEO Brian Chesky published a blog post
in which he apologized for the incident and said the company would begin offering a $50,000 insurance policy for hosts. A round-the-clock customer hotline will also be created, he added.
Of course, what happened to EJ and her home is awful. It’s saddening to hear and frustrating from a we’re-all-in-this-life-together perspective. But it doesn’t surprise me.
The concept of taking an eBay marketplace and putting that into real-life situations in which complete strangers rent out your place with little to no guarantee of what they will do with it while you’re gone is absurd. It gives further credence to those who believe we’re on the cusp of another Internet bubble (Airbnb’s week started a lot better after it announced $112 million in funding
), and that many Web and social media entrepreneurs are getting mega funding for concepts that our parents would have told us was nonsense when we were 5 years old.
Just when Airbnb thought things were calming down a bit, TechCrunch produced a whopper
of an exclusive interview over the weekend with a former Airbnb user who says his home was overrun by meth addicts. The laissez-faire
response from Airbnb to the original complaint, which TechCrunch
runs in its entirety, is telling of the firm’s mounting PR struggles.
That brings me to two reasons why I think PR pros have been slow to latch on to this story:
Airbnb is still a relatively minor digital service.
It has only 2 million customers, mostly clustered in urban areas where people apparently don’t care enough about their own possessions to find this idea silly. (I say this as someone who lives in New York City.)
We’ve seen this kind of mess before.
Last summer, I wrote in Business Insider
about the #EpicFail
of the equally Quixotic Blippy
, which enables people to share their credit-card purchases with followers. In that case, Blippy’s servers went berserk and gave out users’ credit-card info
via a variety of Google search terms. As I wrote then, tech firms often act as though no one can touch them. They boast of huge user bases and mega funding rounds, yet all too often they gloss over the more mundane, but equally important, components of running a successful and long-lasting business. For example, having a strategic communications plan in place before a crisis hits, which, inevitably, as all business owners know, will happen at some point in a firm’s history.
Airbnb investor and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman told the Financial Times last week
, “All entrepreneurs have an optimism that means they can change the world on a massive scale.” That’s all well and good, but few customers and investors care much about optimism when the proverbial feces hit the fan, as they now have for Airbnb.
So, why am I not surprised more PRs haven’t grabbed hold of this story? Because we’re wise enough to realize it will happen again—and probably sooner than we think.
Keith Trivitt is the associate director of PR at the Public Relations Society of America. He also blogs at PRBreakfastClub, where a version of this story appeared.