Lessons in Crisis Communications

United conducts a crash course on being your own worst enemy

United Airlines was the brand dominating the news and pop culture in the last week, but in all the wrong ways.

First, on Sunday, video of a passenger on the nation’s (and the world’s) third largest airline being dragged forcibly from a Chicago flight went viral on social and traditional media. The passenger, Dr. David Dao, suffered a concussion and broken nose, and lost two front teeth in the incident.

United made matters worse by blaming law enforcement, airline regulations and even the passenger himself. On Monday, the airline released this ham-handed statement: “After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”

Then, on Tuesday, United admitted the incident was not caused by overbooking but by an effort to accommodate a flight crew. In a final stumble, the airline issued a tone-deaf statement from CEO Oscar Munoz on social media:

To absolutely no one’s surprise, the statement went viral, with the word “re-accommodate” becoming an overnight star in its own right.

Don’t Pour Fuel on the Fire

Crisis communications professionals have some common sense rules for handling episodes like the Chicago passenger incident, which United took great pains to flaunt.

  1. Be prepared for crises; have a planned protocol for response development and distribution
  2. Give crisis communications experts a seat at the table when formulating the response
  3. Take ownership of the problem, apologize, show humility and humanity
  4. Explain what you are doing to fix the problem, compensate those affected and prevent it from happening again
  5. Do not point fingers, blame others, or focus communications on external factors
  6. Minimize the influence of attorneys on the narrative
  7. Do not try to differentiate internal and external messaging; assume anything communicated internally will spread publicly
  8. Social media can be your friend if used wisely, foe if not

As simple as most of these ideas seem, big brands with the resources to avoid self-inflicted wounds continue to learn crisis communications the hard way. As often as not, it’s the CEO or other executives whose impromptu, misguided attempts to shape public opinion do more harm than good.

Here are some memorable examples:

  • In 2016, Wells Fargo was found to have opened thousands of bank accounts, credit lines and credit cards for its customers without their consent since 2011. The bank agreed to pay the state of California $185 million in fines and $5 million in restitution to customers. Wells then bloodied its own nose by announcing it had fired 5,000+ rank and file employees but not punishing a single senior executive, and blaming the employees rather than the culture of the firm. CEO John Stumpf finally took his lumps before angry U.S. Senators before ‘retiring’.
  • When word spread in 2013 that some of Lululemon’s yoga pants were too sheer to be worn in public, company founder Chip Wilson blamed the fabric’s semi-transparency on overweight women, saying, “Some women’s bodies just actually don’t work” for Lululemon pants. This episode was preceded by an earlier admission of quality control issues and followed by an apology to employees, but not customers, on social media. The company was later forced to acknowledge the impact of the fiasco on its financial results.
  • BP compounded its 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill with a series of PR missteps. As the company struggled to stop the leak, executives made overly optimistic predictions, downplayed its impact and shifted blame onto its contractors. The low point was perhaps when CEO Tony Hayward said, “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” Even BP’s own PR reps were exasperated. “The only time Tony Hayward opens his mouth was to change feet,” one said.
Crisis Comms Done Right

Contrast all of these unforced errors with the way Southwest Airlines handled a 2016 power outage. As the crisis dragged on for four days, the airline published eight updates to its online community and posted multiple Facebook Live videos. The company kept customers apprised of what it was doing to fix the problem and, most importantly, took ownership. “Make no mistake, Southwest created this problem,” it said.

Imagine how much better United would be faring if it had adopted this approach right away. It’s no wonder Southwest flies customer satisfaction circles around big, legacy carriers American, Delta and United.

About Bill

Bill is VP, Content at AMA San Diego. He is a member of the sales team at Neil Patel Digital. He enjoys coffee, CrossFit, golf, traveling, current events and post-apocalyptic fiction. Find him on Twitter: @BillWinnSD