Airbnb room with a table and chairs around it and a cactus by thh window

AirBnB has been one of my favorite new sites for more than a year now.  It’s an online service that matches people with short-term vacation rentals that are typically people’s private homes or guest rooms. There’s obviously a huge leap-of-faith that folks on both sides of this service take. And for the vast majority of users, the site works just like it promises. But mixing private residences and strangers is a ticking time bomb (just like it was for Craigslist) and, sure enough, a few weeks ago trouble erupted.

A woman in San Francisco rented her home to guests via the site, only to find her home ransacked and her identity stolen when she returned.  Well, AirBnB’s initial response to the debacle (which was to remind users to vet their guests) was so cold that even longtime users, like myself, started to give pause to safety of using AirBnB. People use AirBnB because it feels more structured and safer than Craigslist, so the company’s response flew in the face of the culture they had created. Well, someone – either on their PR team or elsewhere – smartened up this week.

Like any good crisis PR mea culpa, the site’s CEO, Brian Chesky, admitted the company had screwed up. On Monday, all AirBnB users got an email from Chesky with an apology and some info on how the site plans to beef up its security. From the email:

In the last few days we have had a crash course in crisis management. I hope this can be a valuable lesson to other businesses about what not to do in a time of crisis, and why you should always uphold your values and trust your instincts.

With regards to EJ [the user whose house was ransacked], we let her down, and for that we are very sorry. We should have responded faster, communicated more sensitively, and taken more decisive action to make sure she felt safe and secure. But we weren’t prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball. Now we’re dealing with the consequences. In working with the San Francisco Police Department, we are happy to say a suspect is now in custody. Even so, we realize that we have disappointed the community. To EJ, and all the other hosts who have had bad experiences, we know you deserve better from us.

When startups mess up, people are typically quick to forgive because they realize their entire business is a work-in-progress. The caveat is, the startup has to fix their misstep quickly and sincerely. And all things considered, AirBnB did just that.  It’s an impressive turn considering how bad things were looking for them just a week ago. And testament to the effectiveness of their recourse, I just booked another trip on the site.


This post was first published by Aarti Shah on March Communications’ blog, PR Nonsense, and may be viewed here.