InfoAndInfluence.com -- With all the turmoil we've been having just remaining 1) healthy and 2) a working democratic republic, it's already been three years since United Airlines ignited one of the most avoidably self-inflicted corporate public relations disasters ever.
Hopefully United has learned that its mission statement to “make every flight a positive experience” precludes dragging bloodied, screaming customers away from the product.
For the rest of us, here are four essential lessons from United’s experience:
1. An otherwise manageable bad news event becomes a PR disaster usually because the company bungles its initial response.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz threw gasoline on an already raging fire by apologizing “for having to re-accommodate these passengers” -- ignoring that millions of people around the world were watching with outrage the phone videos of Chicago airport security men violently dragging a non-violent, 69-year-old doctor down the aisle while other passengers screamed to stop.
And just like that... An inexcusable but isolated, maybe even containable incident of barbarity by a third party becomes United’s global PR fiasco.
Consider how things might have played out had United's leader instead come out seething with fury, demanding immediate answers as if it had been his own father dragged down the aisle, breaking his nose and knocking out teeth.
United's first response epitomizes a reputation risk that exists at many good companies. In first hours after a bad news event, many of those same companies suddenly treat their stakeholders as liabilities -- threats to be mitigated by dancing around the issue with words that say nothing and admit even less.
This is where a PR problem mostly likely becomes a raging PR crisis.
In this era of hyper-transparency and real-time information, stakeholders aren’t spectators to how your company responds to negative events. They’re participants.
Treating them like anything less is a sure-fire way to make the PR problem worse.
2. The cost of a PR crisis is ultimately determined by your company’s ability to respond to situations that nobody saw coming.
United Airlines has at its beck and call a global army of crisis-savvy experts in law, risk, reputation management and strategic communications. That the company shot itself in the foot so severely underscores how difficult it can be to manage PR emergencies in real time.
Consider your own company’s preparedness: Does leadership include loss of reputation value as a strategic risk consideration? How would you organize, vet the situation and communicate under extreme duress? Can the company be empathetic toward victims of the bad news events and the public’s reaction to them?
The less certain you are of how your company would navigate a similarly intense and fast-moving bad news situation, the more likely that things are going to get real bad, real fast.
3. The brand is responsible for the bad behavior of its beholders.
Consumer brands usually take most of the negative PR for the bad behavior of downstream support companies. This is partly a matter of who has the deepest pockets to pay a possible settlement, partly a simple name recognition issue.
But when the company escalates public outrage as United did with its dismissive first statement, the brand’s perceived top-down culpability expands to include all aspects of the negative situation.
While it was the United crew that called them in, it was Chicago airport security that violently dragged a paid, boarded and seated passenger from the plane. Yet the victim's lawyers made clear they intended to vilify United, promoting their client as the “poster child” for how the airline industry mistreats its customers.
“Are we just going to continue to be treated like cattle?” Dr. Dao’s lawyer asked, saying he’s been “deluged with hundreds tales of woe, of mistreatment” and that “for a long time, airlines — United in particular — have bullied us.”
Consider how quickly this kind of disparaging, escalating allegation could be made against your company, singularly or as the face of your industry.
4. Corporate PR crisis is a spectator sport, often disproportional to whatever event started it all.
In his 2014 book, Glass Jaw, Eric Dezenhall calls out the entrenched “crisis creation industry” of vested interests, information leakers, publicity mongers, competing news networks and click-hungry media sites – all working to exploit the advantages and failures of the internet age.
The result: An over-amplified, distorted echo-chamber where some idiot’s sexist tweet from a small company nobody’s heard of is reported as hard news on CNN International, and United’s seemingly dismissive response to the Chicago incident slashes more than $1 billion from the company’s market value in the span of a day or two.
True, the potential negative impact of any corporate crisis is often mitigated by the next day's fresh scandals and controversies. But protagonists know to push out new information, revelations and allegations to keep their issues active in the court of public opinion.
Meanwhile, the company must deal with the real-world fallout of its PR crisis: investigations, lawsuits, recruiting challenges, customer concerns and other costly byproducts. For many small or mid-size companies, what happens behind a PR crisis is as devastating as the public view.
Which is why it’s so important to be prepared for whatever might be from around the corner.
InfoAndInfluence.com is written by Steven Silvers and Paul Jacobson, founding partners of SilversJacobson Crisis Management & PR Strategies.
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