In an interview with ‘Good Morning America,’ United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz said he felt ‘shame’ when watching viral videos of a passenger being dragged from his seat aboard a flight.
CREDIT: Getty Images
I imagine United CEO Oscar Munoz, locked in his study, has been frantically Googling time travel technology. It would be worth at least $225 million to United’s shareholders after shares plummeted as much as $1.4 billion in the initial 48 hours after the incident.
But here’s the problem: Oscar Munoz is simply the face of a much larger issue at United.
And it’s one that you probably have at your company too.
Because the days when crisis communications (or indeed all major PR) could be left to a trained spokesperson are over.
In the age of viral video, every customer with a smartphone has the ability to publish your mistakes to millions at the push of a button, so there’s very little margin for error. And chances are, it will be your employees on the ground who will get into situations that require these judgment calls.
To be clear, this isn’t about fear mongering…
All companies get into situations where a customer’s will is pitted against policy. So here’s the first thing you should know:
1. Don’t set yourself up to be the bad guy by leaving customer-facing staff to make decisions without viral media training
Being perceived as putting policy or your company’s own best interests above a customer’s (assuming the customer’s demand is reasonable) will always bite you where it hurts.
In the case of United Airlines, the flight wasn’t technically overbooked (i.e. with too many seats sold). It was simply full. They wanted those extra seats for United staff (hardly a humanitarian crisis).
And they made the mistake of letting folks board and be seated before getting local police to forcibly drag a 69-year-old doctor along the aisle, bloody his face and leave him in need of medical attention.
There is simply no way to justify this.
Here’s what media expert and author of Media Secrets: A Media Training Crash Course, Jess Todtfeld says, “Airlines must know that actions of local authorities will be reflected on the airline. This is not what any company wants as their public-facing image.
“In this situation, United Airlines should have given all staff viral media training. Staff should have training that helps them make on-the-fly decisions to keep passengers happy and accommodated.”
2. Never release one statement to the public and a different one to your staff
“Someone will always leak the internal memo,” explains crisis communications expert, Gerard Braud. “All audiences must get the same message.
“And you want to be communicating incrementally, a little at a time to prevent the crisis from getting worse.”
3. Your communications must move at the speed of the Twitterverse
It took Munoz 48 hours and three statements to say, “”The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened.”
Problem is, his lack of immediate damage control allowed customers, competitors and detractors to hijack the story. And the fact that his statements contradicted each other didn’t help his case.
“I have more than 300 pre-written news releases on my laptop that are lawyer-approved and ready to use in seconds,” says Braud, who is most comfortable in “war rooms” at corporations looking to clean up after a disaster. “On average it takes 10 minutes for me to edit one,” he says.
4. Read your statement with your “cynic” glasses on
Get training so you can cynic-proof your public statements. This is another area United dropped the ball. Gerard Braud adds in the cynic’s read of United’s public statements:
On April 10, Munoz said, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”
The cynic’s take: “We needed to get four of our employees somewhere and they are more important than you are, so we called the cops on you.”
Later Munoz said to employees, “I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
The cynic reads, “You showed our customers who is boss. Keep up the good work. Follow the rules written to benefit us, regardless of who gets hurt.”
He went on to tell employees, “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.”
You don’t even have to be a cynic to see that dragging a man with a bloodied face from his seat has nothing to do with respect or dignity.
The bottom line?
The time to prepare for a crisis is before it happens. This is a difficult thing for most time-and cash-strapped business owners to swallow. But think about it, United Airlines could probably have hired a crisis communications expert to create a company-wide training program for under $400K.
And the fact that it didn’t has cost it $225M and counting.
Would you invest a few thousand to have news release templates and basic procedures set up at your company to prevent a PR disaster?
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.