United Airlines: how to turn a spot of local difficulty into a global disaster

12th April 2017

By Tim Cobb

A crisis management expert carries around a kit-bag containing a whole bunch of communication skills and a spell book containing a few dark arts. But most of the space is taken up with … yep, common sense.

Rule No 1 – arm yourself with bucket loads of common sense

United Airlines (UA) could have averted this catastrophe by applying that common sense from the outset. They needed to find a flight for four of their staff to Louisville and opted for the usual route of a cash inducement to entice passengers on this flight to take a later one. Nobody was interested.

At this point, UA should have looked for other ways of transporting their four staff members, or increased the cash offer. They did neither. Instead, they picked four people at random to evict. What was happening to the common sense that each and every UA employee on that plane has? Surely they could have seen that this would not end well?

Monitoring the online video clips, it is clear that our reluctant passenger, Dr David Dao, already has the sympathy of other travellers around him. They are horrified by his treatment even before he is man-handled off the plane. Common sense should have been telling the cabin services director and captain that it was time to desist and go to Plan B.

Rule No 2 – always have a Plan B (and even Plan C and D)

Sadly, there was no Plan B. The passenger, who helps pay the wages of UA staff and contributes to the company’s $1.85bn profit, is dragged away screaming and bloodied.

So what should Plan B have been? It is the art of knowing when you have lost the fight. If Dr Dao needs his seat, and other passengers around him are supporting him, it is time to accept defeat, lick your wounds and move on. The captain calms everybody down over his PA system, explains the situation and says that they will be preparing for take-off within the next 10 minutes. The cabin crew hand out free drinks and try to calm down the situation and deal with questions. 

Rule No 3 – no surprises

An unexpected or surprise outcome means that somebody has not done their job properly. When I head into difficult situations, I inform everybody that my mantra is “no surprises”. I want to know the worst-case scenarios so that we can plan accordingly. We may not be able to avoid them, but at least we are not in a state of shock.

Social media frenzy should not have been a surprise. This type of incident is made for it. But instead of being prepared and on the front foot, United Airlines boss Oscar Munoz emailed staff to congratulate the plane crew on a job well done. REALLY? Was he watching different film footage of the incident? Or, more likely, were his team of advisers simply telling him what he wanted to hear … that everything would be fine and that it was an unruly passenger who was causing all the problems.

Rule No 4 – do not surround yourself with “yes” men

To be the boss of a multi-billion pound company you need nerves of steel, strong convictions and huge self-belief. 

More than that, you need a PR/comms chief who is empowered to tell you when you are wrong. This is not always easy. Do you think President Trump ever listens to his PR adviser? I somehow doubt it.

As the boss, you need to appoint a person you trust and believe in. Accept that their job is to sometimes tell you things you do not want to hear. And be confident enough to take that advice and act on it.

Rule No 5 – visibility

Forget press releases and press statements. When you are so firmly in the cack that you are in danger of drowning, it is time to show your face, demonstrate a bit of humility and apologise.

Rule 6 – never try to defend the indefensible

In this situation, there is no possible defence … none whatsoever. So do not waste your time, your reputation and share price by trying.

Rule No 7 – I’m sorry

The legal teams and the PR advisors will fight over the use of the word “sorry”. Lawyers do not like it, as it implies guilt and could encourage compensation claims.

There are times, however, when it is clearly the right thing to do. This saga cries out for Mr Munoz to hold his hands up high and say: “I am sorry.”

Rule No 8 – learn from this and try harder next time 

Demonstrate the learning from the event – people are more likely to forgive and forget if they feel some good has come out of a bad situation.  Hopefully UA will completely overhaul their deplaning policies and customer service culture.  In fact, the first thing they should do is discard that awful word “deplane”. Most airlines sell themselves on their customer service standards – UA has got a lot of making-up to do. They will need to fire, hire, retrain and bend over backwards if they are to regain the trust of passengers. 

Rule No 9 – beware the Splatter Gun effect

As bullets fly, watch out for ricochets heading your way. The trade magazine PR Week (aimed at communications professionals) named Mr Munoz their Communicator of the Year in February.

But instead of ‘fessing up to it and explaining their reasoning, they came out all guns firing to have a pop at him via quotes from some Crisis Management experts.

Come on PR Week, you should know better.

Rule No 10 – seek expert advice

Modesty forbids me promoting myself, but it can pay dividends to call in a bit of outside help. An external adviser brings with him/her decades of experience in similar or worse situations. The adviser can also tell you the hard truths that employees might struggle with.

 

Tim Cobb spent the first 15 years of his career as a national and regional news journalist, before setting up his own PR and crisis management company in 1995.

Tim has advised companies, charities and governments on issues ranging from terrorism to gang wars and chemical incidents to animal cruelty.

If you would like more information on dealing with a crisis, you can contact tim@cobbpr.com or call him on 01323 416999

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