Never before has the limousine industry been so consumed by a news event. The unprecedented fatal stretch limousine fire in May thrust an otherwise low-profile, discreet industry into the media glare. We all heard public comments surrounding the spectacle that ranged from quick-trigger speculations to reasoned perspectives.
As of this writing, California authorities have not issued an official cause for the fire that burned five women to death in the stretch limousine on a bridge across San Francisco Bay. Absent further facts and findings, we are left with plenty of speculation and gossip mixed with some reliable information that gets repeated privately yet no one is ready to put on the record. But we still can draw some lessons from the tragedy based on what we know and see so far.
Train For The Pain
By most accounts, the chauffeur botched the real-time handling of the accident as well as exercised poor judgment in blabbing to the media afterward. “That chauffeur would not be working for the companies in this room and no owner here would allow a chauffeur to make such comments following an accident,” Mark Stewart, the president of the Greater California Livery Association, told operators at a meeting May 14. Although the company that operated the limousine is legal and appeared to be in good standing before the accident, the chauffeur’s behavior underscores the need for vigilant and constant training. Limousine companies, if they haven’t already, should upgrade training programs for all chauffeurs, including weekend moonlighters, to cover the “unthinkables.” And allowing more people into any chauffeured vehicle beyond its maximum capacity is inexcusable. A chauffeur who does that should be fired on the spot.
Cheapskates Slip First
There’s no nice way to it, but promoting limousine services based on the cheapest, discounted price is like flashing a blue light special. That’s not for the chauffeured crowd. Cheapest does not equal the best. It never did nor can it. This applies to all products and services. Going for bottom dollar can backfire with even costlier trade-offs down the road. What’s the point of buying the cheapest furniture if you have to replace it every few years? The limousine industry should sell value, service and experience ahead of price. When operators offer discounts, they should apply them discreetly for loyal, repeat, bulk buyers of chauffeured services. Could you imagine the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain advertising a billboard special along a freeway ala Motel 6? Only $59.99 per night!
Quality Body Builders
As expected, the media attention has focused on limousine safety and construction. Regardless of the investigation outcome, or the origin of the stretch limousine involved, it behooves the industry to collectively promote and support stretch limousines built to official OEM specs and modifier programs. There are also reputable, quality-driven custom stretch coachbuilders, but operators should thoroughly research and visit a manufacturer before ordering a custom stretch. Whether a limousine is OEM-certified or custom-stretched, industry voices always should boldly point out that no vehicle, no matter how well built, can be operated safely if it is misused, neglected, or modified in a hazardous way.
I could devote multiple columns to media mistakes and flubs on both sides of the fence. True to form, bureaucracies bungled answers and some reporters didn’t bother with fact finding, while a handful of commentators spoke too soon. The media storm underscored two eternal principles of media relations: Don’t speculate, but don’t clam up.
I applaud the many limousine operators across the nation who ignored the herd instinct to hide, and fearlessly talked to their local TV stations and media outlets about safety, about their vehicles, about their companies’ good practices.
This was good public relations at a bad time that brought out the better heads. Such exposure helped reassure a media-spooked public while putting out some positive industry images. As is often the case in a crisis or trauma, it’s the little guys who express the concerns, ask the questions, and connect the dots — not the bigger institutions of officialdom.
In this era of viral digital and social micro-media, the practice of centralizing and controlling messages no longer works as it did in the 20th Century. The digital information age follows few rules. Those who master it know how to make the right message go mainstream in any situation.