United Airlines made PR fiasco worse by its initial response, Spokane crisis management expert says

April 12, 2017

United Airlines could have avoided much of the damage to its brand and reputation this week in how it first responded to a passenger being dragged screaming from his airplane seat by security on Sunday, a Spokane expert in crisis management said.

“The company made a classic mistake of blaming the victim in their response,” said Jeffrey Bell, managing partner at Gallatin Public Affairs.

“If you make a mistake, take responsibility for it, own up to it and fix it,” Bell said in an interview Tuesday. “But there’s this instinct to point the finger in some other direction, and that just exacerbates the problem.”

United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, said in a message to employees Monday that he regretted what happened but commended the employees involved for following established procedures. He also called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.”

That had the effect of pouring gasoline on the fire. United was widely criticized and ridiculed as cell phone videos of the distraught, bloody passenger went viral across social media. The company’s stock tumbled Tuesday before Munoz finally apologized to the passenger, saying, “No one should ever be mistreated this way. We are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

Those should have been the first words United issued in the public-relations fiasco, Bell said.

“The most important words you’re going to say in a crisis are your first words,” he said. “And that’s where the statement by the CEO of the company just sent this into a tailspin – by speaking sort of corporatese, blaming the victim, not taking full responsibility, not offering an apology to the person that was impacted by this.”

The rough removal of the 69-year-old passenger, to free a seat for a United employee, was bad enough, Bell said, but public outrage swelled over the company’s defensive response. And it’s especially surprising given that airlines are oriented around customer service, he said.

“There’s this lack of understanding of what to do in a crisis that leads them down this path where they don’t have the right protocol, the right approach to this.”

Gallatin advises its clients to manage crises by following a procedure known by the acronym CAP:

Concern: Express concern and say you’re sorry.

Action: State you will fix the problem.

Perspective: Provide some perspective, such as saying, “This hasn’t happened before, but we’re looking into it and will make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“In a crisis situation, you need to follow your values, not your instincts,” Bell said. “And this is hard to do sometimes, because human instincts are what’s playing out here from United’s perspective.”

They went into survival mode and deflected responsibility right out of the gate, instead of embracing values such as openness, honesty and trust. “Those are the touchstones that you need to reflect on when you are involved in a crisis,” Bell said.

Organizations also need to be ready to respond quickly to crises because of how easily and swiftly the news is spread these days, Bell said.

“Everyone is a potential reporter, with cell phones and social media,” he said. “So whatever happens in a public space potentially gets on the news or on social media instantaneously, often times before a company even knows it has happened.”

Organizations must understand how social media have changed the dynamics of communication, he said. “It makes it even more critical to handle yourself in a crisis better than ever because of this new phenomenon.”

His firm recommends embracing the very media – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or whatever – where the criticism and outrage are spreading.

“When you are the target in social media, you need to immediately respond in social media … with the right message to remedy the situation,” Bell said.

Even when large corporations make fundamental blunders in a crisis, they typically can survive, Bell said. “But if this were to happen to a regional airline with smaller capital resources, it could be the end of the company very easily,” he said.

But he added, “These things are so avoidable if you handle them right to begin with. People understand that organizations are human and mistakes are going to be made. … If you do things right, you can actually come out better for it and the company can have a stronger reputation than it has going into the situation.”