How to Reverse a Downward Spiral of Public Outrage

Community Relations: Lessons Learned from Airbnb

Airbnb, formerly a big, bad corporate bully, has found a way to endear itself to local communities. What it’s done serves as a modern model for excellent community relations and earns five stars from this public relations consultant.

In 2013 the company launched its Open Homes Program, a disaster response initiative that makes it easy for Airbnb hosts to provide space for people in need when disasters strike. As far as I can tell, Airbnb receives no financial gain from doing this.

Recent floods in Northern California prompted Airbnb to activate the program in February and then extend the program to March 18. That’s just one of many locales around the world where the program has been used.

No doubt Airbnb has a multitude of reports that account for the positive publicity generated by its Open Homes Program. I have seen and heard a lot of that publicity, and I’ve been mighty impressed.

The Open Homes Program supports hosts who choose to provide temporary lodging free of charge to different people who were affected by a disaster. Hosts can access Airbnb’s 24/7 customer support team as well as a specialized team for any questions about an Open Homes reservation. And in the rare case of an accident, Airbnb will reimburse the host for qualifying property damages up to $1,000,000.

What an inspired way to build goodwill for the company! It wasn’t always a favorite community partner, though.

Plenty of Airbnb bashing is what I observed in my hometown of San Francisco, California, which happens to be where the company is headquartered.

Readers vent about Airbnb: The good, the bad and the ugly was the headline of a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that ran two years ago. A few snippets from that story include:

  • “I placed a call to my city council person, who was sympathetic, but said there was nothing that could be done — and that Airbnb had spent tons of money to fight off any legal action to keep them out.”
  • “It’s absolutely absurd that Airbnb refuses to work with the city on a registry (of legal hosts). How is it OK for them to just say we won’t do it? I think it’s pathetic!!!”

Many communities throughout the nation have responded to similar outrage by passing short-term home rental laws, which has resulted in a substantial loss of hosts in those communities.

Reverse the Spiral with a Strong Community Relations Plan

The majority of legislation aimed at reining in Airbnb was forged long before the Open Homes Program gained traction. Had the company done more to publicize the program earlier on, it may have staved off much of the criticism that seemed so commonplace just a few years ago. I no longer observe that criticism, and in my humble opinion I credit the company’s exemplary community relations program for the difference.

John Knox owns Knox Communications, which this year is celebrating 30 years of excellence in public relations and marketing communications. Knox Communications is the San Francisco Affiliate of PRConsultants Group.