The terrifying blog post that blew up on Hacker News yesterday–we saw it via Jason Kottke, which shows you it was making the rounds even though it was a month old–about what happens when Airbnb guests go bad, is by far Airbnb’s worst public relations crisis yet. Worse than the Craigslist spam; worse than the possibility that the service in some cases technically violates a New York City law.
While the victim may have been a bit overdramatic in her retelling of the story, and also appears to have been remiss during the due diligence phase, we expected Airbnb–the company that sold Obama-themed cereal while it was bootstrapping and whose CEO spent a year homeless so he could use the service all around San Francisco–we expected such a creative, marketing-minded start-up to bend over backwards to fix this woman’s life. $1 billion valuation? Get this woman a house!
Instead, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky responded in a blog post on TechCrunch today to say Airbnb is “devastated” that the incident “undermined… a case study that people are fundamentally good.” Then he outlined some safety changes Airbnb would be making, including doubling its customer support staff. “We have begun development on improvements to increase the safety of Airbnb,” he writes, including offering insurance to hosts.
This reads kind of like, Oops, sorry guys, we thought all our users were nuns and saints. Now that someone has had her house wrecked, we guess we will offer insurance and do some other safety stuff that we didn’t think of before! “Definitely seems like PR 101 to me,” one commenter writes at TechCrunch. “When word of this spreads outside the tech world & this story is the first impression millions of people get of AirBnB, the company is done. They need to cover the damages, regardless of legal responsibility. By not covering them, the company is giving the impression that they don’t want to set a precedent if this were to happen again– leading one to believe even they know it will certainly happen again.”
It’s a black eye for a heretofore-blessed company. Mr. Chesky should be glad the crime wasn’t worse–it didn’t rise to the level of the Craigslist killer or Couchsurfing.com rapist–but Airbnb would do well to pull out all the stops in order to prevent more incidents. People still use Craigslist and Couchsurfing, but those sites are free.