After another PR disaster, what can we learn from the United Airlines crisis?

Images of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight dominated the news recently.

And then this weekend, a flight attendant after he was filmed challenging a passenger to a fight at the front of an aircraft cabin.

‘United Airlines PR disaster’ currently has more than three million hits on Google. For an airline which boasts the slogan ‘fly the friendly skies,’ the fact that the incident came so soon after two teenagers were blocked from a flight for wearing leggings underlines consistent mismanagement.

The muddled and somewhat catastrophic response from United’s CEO Oscar Munoz underlined the need for good practice and good communications planning ahead of any possible crisis and the negative publicity that inevitably follows.

The fact that Munoz had just won the PR Week U.S.’s 2017 Communicator of the Year last month only adds to the irony.

It would be easy to think that a reputational issue of that gravity could not happen to you, but there are few organisations where mistakes or errors never occur. And in this age of smartphones, mistakes are even more difficult to hide.

So what can sports brands learn from the catalogue of errors that hit United’s reputation and share price, particularly if you have never encountered a threat to your reputation before?

And how ready are you to deal with an issue or a crisis should it occur?

1.    PREPARE

Make sure you have a thorough crisis plan in place which addresses all foreseeable issues and crises that you might face. 

Crisis planning requires practice and collaboration involving senior executives, legal counsel and communications consultants who can identify any potential shortcomings in your operations which may need addressing before they affect your reputation.

United’s response also gave the impression that legal counsel did not fully understand the communications landscape. So make sure your legal team work closely with your communications team so that the court of public opinion is considered as much as a court of law.

A regularly-reviewed crisis management plan and media training also ensures that spokespeople are prepared for challenging media scrutiny. 

2.    BE SURE OF YOUR FACTS

It’s not always easy to know what is true and what is not when a crisis strikes.

Use monitoring to gauge the latest developments and the reaction of the media and social media communities. 

Munoz initially blamed overbooking when it transpired that passengers had been bumped to make way for United employees.

Never speculate, never say anything you do not know for certain to be true and never be seen to put your company ahead of others who may have been affected by the incident.

Crises happen but the inability to communicate truthfully can undermine credibility as well as reputation.

3.    START REPAIRING THE DAMAGE QUICKLY

It’s what you do as much as what you say that determines how well a crisis is managed.

Ensure that you liaise directly with anyone who has been affected as well as any investigating authorities, even if only to offer full co-operation once they are ready to proceed.

Speak to anyone within your organisation to determine exactly what happened and be prepared to update the media and your stakeholders regularly as more information comes to light.

4.    REACT QUICKLY

We don’t live in the world of daily news cycles anymore: news is 24/7. Anyone and everyone has a smartphone capable of sharing images and videos that can go viral within minutes of them being sent, such is the nature of social media.

The longer you remain silent, the more others will dominate the agenda and it is vital that you communicate before anyone asks “Why are they hiding?”

Half an hour is about as much time as you can afford before someone else steps in and dominates the story's agenda on social media and about an hour more before you need to make your first statement to the media.

5.    USE NATURAL LANGUAGE

Jargon or unsympathetic language give the impression that the speaker is robotic, controlled by corporate or legal language which does not convey compassion.

Munoz used language such as “system failure” and “re-accommodate these customers” which was at best a poor attempt to trivialise the incident.

In times of a crisis, a spokesperson needs to be likeable, sincere and calm and be ready to apologise and sympathise with anything that has gone wrong that the brand has been associated with. 

Munoz certainly failed on these counts before it was too late.

6.    NEVER BE AFRAID TO APOLOGISE

Show compassion and put your audience first, be they consumers, fans, partners or athletes.

Pointing the finger, criticising others and failing to take any responsibility are sure-fire ways to fan the flames of a crisis rather than pour water on it.

Munoz initially referred to the ejected passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” which hardly fits the brand values that they are so keen to promote.

Statements need to be empathetic and reassuring rather than defensive.

If your apology acknowledges the hurt or damage caused and the regret that it happened, accepts (at least some) responsibility and vows to ensure that it does not happen again, you will start to rebuild the trust that a crisis can erode.

Problems may occur due to error or oversight, but a brand’s values need to consistently reflect those of its external and internal audiences in the tough times as well as the good.

The irony is that we insure our houses, our cars and our health, but few organisations undertake regular crisis communications audits and preparation to insure their reputations. 

How confident are you that you are well-prepared for if a problem occurs?

If you haven't recently undertaken a crisis communications audit or refreshed your media training, get in touch with us for a free consultation.