4 crisis communications lessons from United’s worst week ever

The airline has delivered a master class in mishandling a PR firestorm over a passenger it had ‘re-accommodated’ on a recent flight. What can communicators learn from this debacle?

Which of the three statements issued by United CEO Oscar Munoz should we believe?

Monday he said: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Later Monday, in a statement to employees, he said, “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

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He went on to say, about the man dragged off the flight, “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.”

Or do we believe his statement Tuesday: “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. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

He goes on to say, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

Yes, but it’s never too soon to do the right thing, either.

Outdated processes, bad decisions

As one who has sat in public relations war rooms on five continents, I’m constantly amazed that big companies make bad decisions based on out-of-date public relations standards and crisis communications strategies. They’re often supervised by a team of lawyers who refuse to use the word “apology” out of fear of giving ammunition to the plaintiff’s attorney.

Here are four crisis communications lessons you should consider:

1. Never make one statement to the public and another to your employees. All audiences should always get the same statement. The inconsistencies in your statements will always be released to the public by an employee.

2. Your corporate response must move at the speed of Twitter. If it takes two days to get as outraged as the Twittersphere got in a matter of seconds, then you don’t understand modern crisis communications. I have more than 300 pre-written news releases on my laptop that are lawyer-approved and ready to use in seconds. On average it takes 10 minutes for me to edit one.

3. If you could attach a dollar value to your words and actions in a crisis, would you make money or lose money? United is losing; the stock is crashing. The cynic in me wonders whether Munoz would have forgone the Tuesday statement were it not for the outraged world screaming advice in the form of dollar signs.

4. Parse your words until they are cynic-proof.

That last one is crucial, so let’s parse the statements from United and add a cynic’s view.

On Monday he said, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

The cynic reads this as saying, “We needed to get four of our employees somewhere and they are more important than you are, even if we have to call the cops to drag you out of your seat.”

Later he 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.”

The cynic looks at the video and clearly sees that the customer dragged from the plane was in no way treated with respect or dignity.

The Tuesday statement says, “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment.”

The cynic thinks: We all got that feeling 48 hours ago. Why did it take you two days to feel the same way?

Somewhere at United there is a room full of executives, lawyers, PR folks and PR agency people. Do you think any of them should keep their jobs after their mismanagement of this situation?

The key to crisis communications is to take steps and make decisions on a clear, sunny day regarding how you will respond on your darkest day. Yet most organizations are too focused on bringing in money to discuss the methods they should use to keep the money from gushing out the door when they screw up.

Gerard Braud has been a go-to crisis communications expert for organizations on five continents for nearly 25 years. A version of this post originally appeared on the Gerard Braud Communications blog .

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