By Alex Malouf, board member of MEPRA and IABC
For a company whose tag line is “Fly the Friendly Skies”, there could have been nothing worse than for passengers onboard flight 3411 to have witnessed the dragging of an elderly gentleman, a doctor who had to get home to attend to his patients the following day, out of his seat and down the aisle. For United Airlines, what happened became a global public relations disaster, with videos taken on passengers’ phones being shared globally via social media, and then spreading via traditional, broadcast media. It was a crisis that horrified the millions who saw the video.
For the company’s CEO, who had only the month before been touted as “communicator of the year” by PR Week, the experience has been humbling. Oscar Munoz only made the issue worse Iman internal memo to employees that was leaked to the media; he had described the passenger as “belligerent and disruptive” for not giving up bus seat on the fully booked flight to a United employee.
Crises and what follows can have serious reputational repercussions for any organization, but they’re also essential reading about what not to do. The first lesson that we need to take from this story is that there’s no such thing as a public relations crisis. This situation was caused by United’s approach to its customers; it was a company policy to bump customers if there were no free seats for employees who had to travel.
United had been heavily criticized earlier in the year on social media after two girls were reportedly barred from flying for wearing leggings, which contravened United’s dress code for those traveling on a special pass, for employees and their guests. If a potential issue can occur due to an organization’s policies, policies should be amended. United Airlines has since scrapped the policy that allows employees to bump passengers; seated passengers cannot be moved from their seats by cabin crew. Whilst this is the right response, it should have been done before a crisis occurred.
Unfortunately, the other misperception is the role of communications. When a crisis occurs executives rush over to the communications team to contain the issue. By the time the crisis has happened, there’s little the communications team can do to right a wrong. They can work on messaging, on engaging with media and responding via digital directly with consumers. However, as I’ve said, crises are best managed through prevention rather than cure. The communications team can work with the organization to right the wrong and explain what went wrong, why it happened and what is being done about it (as American Airlines has done this month with a similar onboard issue). However, they can’t wave a magic wand and make everything go away.
What communicators need to do effectively during a crisis is ensure that they’re being listened to by their leadership. Munoz missed the opportunity to show any empathy when he wrote that first message to his employees; his arrogance and hubris only served to intensify the public backlash. He should have listened to his communications team, who should have helped him to put together an authentic message that would have better represented the company’s values and shown that the CEO was listening to public sentiment.
In the social age, content can be shared globally in seconds. Executives need to learn that they are responsible for their brand’s reputation, and that what they say will be leaked and judged by the public. Whilst the public is quick to pass judgment, far too many executives still haven’t grasped the importance of listening and of showing empathy. Organizations are often responsible for their own mess, but bad situations should never be made worse by executive hubris.
CEOs need to start rebuilding trust with their consumers, by listening and understanding to public sentiment. It’s never been easier to analyze public sentiment, thanks to social media. Let’s hope that CEOs (and communicators) learn these lessons from United Airlines, rather than through experiencing a crisis themselves.