You’ve probably heard the slogan, “You never have a second chance to make a good impression.”
The same is true in crisis communications. When a crisis hits, as it did with United Airlines removing a passenger from a flight, the company had to come out with a strong message. Unfortunately, it didn’t and today has to figure out how to pick up the pieces from a PR disaster.
Unfortunately, it didn’t and today has to figure out how to pick up the pieces from a PR disaster.
We have all seen the videos of a man being forcibly taken off a plane that was overbooked. The man was bloodied and dragged off the aircraft.
The company’s CEO Oscar Munoz initially blabbered about re-accommodating a passenger. He also fired off an internal note to employees commending them for their actions.
Both were bad moves.
The media, and particularly social media and talk shows, jumped all over the airline for its insensitivity to a Chinese passenger and highlighted how offended the Chinese public was. The next day it was revealed the passenger was actually Vietnamese and new stories about how offended the Vietnamese were flourished.
What did United Airlines do wrong with its initial response? It is very likely the company conferred with its legal team and were told everything it did was legal. While true, the biggest mistake was not addressing the emotional part of the issue.
The average passenger was thinking “They could have done that to me!!” The guy had paid for a ticket and was waiting for his flight to depart when all hell broke loose.
Years ago a phone company in Lima, Ohio, issued new phone books. That’s not exactly “stop the presses kind of news,” but in this case it was. The phone books contained coupons for various discounts: pizza, dry cleaning, home goods, etc.
It also contained a coupon offering $25 off on an abortion!!
The phone book coupon issue exploded locally and then nationally. The local Catholic hospital in Lima was beyond upset. People on both sides of the abortion issue agreed that offering a discount coupon for it was tacky.
The phone company’s legal team initially was quick to point out it was perfectly legal for the abortion clinic to offer a coupon since abortions were legal. But the average person did not care if the coupon was legal. They thought it was tacky and insensitive.
The company spokesman ignored the legalities of the message and instead profusely apologized to everyone for the offensive coupon. He promised controversial coupons would never find their way into the phone book again. The message resonated and the furor died down in a few days.
CEO Munoz blew his initial message, but a day later had developed a new, stronger one. It should have been his initial message.
“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened,” noted Munoz.
After all the facts have come out about the incident some cooler heads have risen over the incident. However, it will be tough to overcome the initial horrible publicity and a reported $255 million loss in stock value.