United Airlines Shows Why Good Comms Can Save Your Company

Issue 23

What else can we talk about, apart from the fallout from that horrific United Airlines PR disaster?

Organisations keep giving us the ammunition to write articles like this. Seriously, I wish they wouldn’t, but it makes this column really easy.

It’s a predictable topic, but it keeps on happening. We’ve been here before. Countless times. And the argument remains the same. Bad things can and will happen in your business. So often, its how you react that can be the making or breaking of the situation.

For those of you living under rocks, United overbooked a domestic flight in the States and struggled to remove willing passengers from it. So they manhandled a gentleman off the plane in the most disturbing of manners. Naturally, other passengers filmed the incident and it was round the world within minutes.

United Airlines assessed this situation teetering on a cliff edge and ham-fistedly and appallingly gave it such a shove that they fell off the cliff with it. It was horrific from start to finish.

There was the chance for the CEO to front up quickly, admit procedures had gone badly wrong and issue full and wholehearted apologies to the passenger involved. Instead, a flimsy half-acceptance was issued alongside a bizarre internal memo which suggested the passenger had been ‘disruptive’ beforehand and effectively absolved blame from any of the United Airlines staff involved.

But the day after the incident, a day where the CEO Oscar Munoz still hadn’t issued a sufficient public apology, United Airlines saw $255m wiped from its share price. In addition, corporate user after corporate user (not to mention the many thousands of individual customers) publicly announced they’d be cancelling their future flying arrangements with the airline.

The condemnation of the airline was worldwide.

The next person who says to me ‘Yes, but PR is just a nice to have when times are good’ will be shown this case study. Because it’s a classic example where communications advice seems to have been left at the gate.

If you’re still thinking that communicatrions’ role with your organisation is to issue a few fluffy press releases every now and again, then I’m afraid you have United-sized problems facing you in the very near future.

Communication’s professionals are your eyes and ears. They’re your sense checkers. They’re the ones who have the ability to listen quickly and intently and advise on actions accordingly. They can keep you honest and humble and have the potential to pull back a situation from the fire.

There are SO MANY bad things taking place in this United episode that there simply isn’t room to discuss them here.

That awful internal memo that Munoz sent to United staff? Implicating the passenger involved in such a communication that he must have known would go public was major error number one.

Then sitting on it overnight, only issuing a wholesome apology after the share price tumbled showed another lack humility so alarming that I question whether the guy will still be in his job by the time this goes to print.

Incidents like this prove that communications demand a place at the very centre of the boardroom table. The message moves far too quickly these days for a team of financial or legal experts, as good as they are at their job, to pontificate over what to do next.

Sleep on it and you’re dead.

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