The Wilbert Group Blog

Posts by Nick Banaszak

Crash and Burn: Lessons from the United Airlines Crisis

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Competing for the title of most hated company in America is obviously the last place any organization wants to be. Yet United Airlines now finds itself in that rarefied air after a public relations disaster of epic proportions that not only will stain the company’s reputation for years to come, but also threatens to undercut its all-important bottom line. A full recap of last week’s event can be found here, but a quick outline will show the train went off the tracks right when United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz “apologized” for “having to re-accommodate” the elderly doctor who was bloodied and manhandled in front of stunned onlookers, and ultimately, millions of online viewers.

Ouch, bam, crash. The bewildering remark was never walked back or corrected in the immediate aftermath, a glaring PR blunder on full display around the globe. If that wasn’t bad enough, Mr. Munoz decided to double down on his awkward stance hours later in a letter he sent to United employees, calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent” while also managing to praise his employees for going “above and beyond to ensure we fly right”. Like throwing a can of gasoline on a fire, this was a classic and painful example demonstrating how a single blunder or wrongful act by an organization can quickly morph into a full-blown public relations crisis and media circus if mishandled. The most devastating wounds for United and any other organization caught up in these types of situations are always self-inflicted. It’s not the initial blunder or misdeed that can sink you, but rather, the follow-up response.

So what public relations lessons can be learned from the United crisis? Whether the initial problem was caused by an ill-advised decision or events beyond your control doesn’t matter. The correct strategy has a singular focus of putting out the fire ASAP, and sometimes that means your organization must expose itself to short-term pain rather than follow a defensive instinct – which risks much more serious consequences. What you say, or don’t say, in a very narrow time window that opens immediately after the storm begins will likely determine whether the crisis is just a headache that eventually passes or leads to long-term, irreversible damage. A few key principles to remember:

  • Move Quickly: Don’t dilly-dally or stonewall. The story is going to be told by the media with or without your input, especially if you’re playing at the level United Airlines does. Your audience and customers will form an opinion about your company whether they hear from you or not. The sooner you get moving the more likely you will retain at least some control over your own narrative. The first 24 hours of a potential crisis is where success or failure is usually determined. Keep the stream of information flowing, even if it’s just bits and pieces at first.
  • Stick With Facts, Tell The Truth: Some PR specialists may advise you to steer clear of the facts and not admit wrongdoing in hopes of skating through potential disaster. But United Airlines is exhibit A of why this is not a good approach. Acknowledge the facts as they are. United’s original response was that the plane was overbooked. That actually was not true. Passengers were removed to make room for other United employees who needed to get to another city. So they created a credibility issue to complement the viral video that was already doing enough damage. See Lance Armstrong, Paula Deen and other notable figures who chose the lying/denying route. This doesn’t help, and leads into the next key principle of…
  • Apologize: None of us like to admit when we’ve blown it. That’s especially true in the corporate world. But a sincere, forthright and clearly worded apology is probably the number one medicine for stemming the bleeding of a public relations crisis. This is about damage control, not damage avoidance. If Mr. Munoz had originally come out and owned up to what happened, apologized, and immediately assured the public they were taking action to fix the problem, things would not have spiraled out of control. Of course, he did say this the following day, but it was too late by the time of his third statement. The key is to keep it at a mistake (singular), instead of having a pile-up of errors and ensuing controversy.
  • Don’t Ignore/Insult/Accuse Customers: All language geared toward your paying customers should be neutral in tone and non-accusatory. That’s even when they may be in the wrong, though it certainly wasn’t the case with United. The instinct to “circle the wagons” internally can become a major turn-off for a watching public. This would seem like common sense, but for many, it’s not. Approach your communications from the vantage point of working with your customers to solve a problem they’re having and make amends if necessary. The robotic language displayed in United’s initial statement conveyed a tone-deaf stance, and the visuals certainly didn’t help. The opinions of your customers matter. They are the lifeblood of your business after all.

One last note: Don’t become complacent. This can happen in any organization. Oscar Munoz was recently honored as “Communicator of the Year” by PRWeek less than a month before this incident. He had impeccable credentials, incredible resources, and access to some of the top PR minds in the industry. And ultimately, none of that mattered.

By sticking to a few key basics, you’ll be able to successfully navigate any storm, minimize damage, and come out stronger on the other side.