United Airlines created a communications crisis for itself in a big way this week, that's for sure. If you enjoying time off the grid in an internet-free location, let me review the particulars:
On Monday, a shocking video of a bloodied United Airlines passenger being forcibly dragged off an airplane in Chicago became a viral sensation on the internet. Apparently airline staff decided to bump four paying passengers in order to get airline employees to Louisville for crew duty the next morning – and although three accepted cash incentives, a doctor declined and was summarily and violently evicted from his seat.
Wait a minute: there were SO many ways to solve this problem without triggering at $255 million stock nosedive, not to mention a crisis communications meltdown. As my long-time friend Diane Dillingham pointed out, couldn't they have offered $1000 or more to de-plane? What about a charter flight for the employees? Hey, a rental car or Lyft would have gotten it done in less than five hours. Hell, Chicago is their hub – wasn't there a corporate jet in a hanger somewhere?
Okay, let's focus on the communications lessons, not all the common sense prevention moves they could have made. Because honestly, every organization – nonprofit and for-profit alike – can learn from this case study.
The first rule of crisis communications is simple. It's to tell the truth, tell it fast and explain how the problem will be fixed and never, ever happen again. The reality is the United CEO was nothing short of a disaster for days after the video blew up the social and traditional media worlds. Check out how United's message evolved:
- 2 hours post-video posting: We asked the customer to leave and when he refused, we called the cops but I guess we apologize for the overbook situation.
- 17 post-video posting: We regret that we needed to "re-accommodate" the customers.
- 21 post-video posting: We are more or less justified because the passenger was "disruptive and belligerent."
- 42 post-video posting: We take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
- 68 post-video posting: This will never happen again and we are going to refund every passenger on that plane.
Yikes, what a P.R. disaster! It's hard to fathom how the United CEO (ironically) just won PR Weekly's "communicator of the year award" given his tone-deaf response this week – but let his misfortune be your guide.
Somehow United forgot that communications is no longer organization-to-target-audience any more; in fact, it's not only a two-way street, but more a network with the potential for explosive reach. Virtually everyone has a phone camera now and you should expect their photos to appear on multiple platforms, tagging decision-makers, influentials and media outlets as a matter of course. Folks are content creators and will show off their sense of humor at your expense like these folks at #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos.
Be truthful, authentic and above all, be human. Own your mistake, genuinely apologize and explain how you will make it right. If you do this while being contrite and real, your supporters will not only get over it, but most will stick with you for the long haul.