In Crisis Management, In the News, Public Relations, Reputation

The shock waves caused by United Airlines’ forcible eviction of a passenger from an overbooked flight have been heard around the world. But somehow they’ve bypassed the board room of United Airlines. And a one-day, $1.4 billion drop in their stock doesn’t seem to have penetrated their walnut-paneled, Persian carpeted walls. That’s BILLION with a B, United!

As crisis communications managers like myself weigh in with shock, finger waving and recommendations about next steps, the management of United Airlines stands stock still. They mouth platitudes like “This is an upsetting event…” and “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.” All trite and tired responses from folks who finally realized that “our hearts go out to…” has been overused. But, really, United? How about delving into what my crisis guru, Jonathan Bernstein calls the 3Cs of Credibility – demonstrating compassion, confidence and competency?

Yes, they did issue the standard CEO-attributed tweet and sent a letter exampling their actions to their poor, beleaguered employee base (wouldn’t you love being a United Airlines employee, right now?). But, both communications lacked two things: heart and soul.

The “heart” would be demonstrating a real concern for the welfare of the passenger who was unceremoniously dragged from the plane and later returned looking dazed and confused by the rough treatment. The soul would be a true demonstration of sorrow for what they did and an understanding that there are corporate-wide lessons to be learned from it.

What United Airlines appears to be truly sorry for was not their actions; but that those actions were captured on video and streamed to the world. Let’s call that STV: “Sorry There’s Video.” I’m thinking this could really catch on with the texting crowd. Someone posts a video of you having a little too much at a party – STV! Someone records your significant other heading into a club on a night he told you he’d be working – STV.

Look, climbing out of this hole is going to take more than tweets and emails to employees. It will take a detailed, well-reasoned plan to rebuild the hit to United Airlines’ reputation. One that that will play out over months and even years.

Here’s a general framework:

  • Start by making a plan to deal with today’s firestorm
  • Layer on some real listening and learning about what it says about your corporate culture
  • Demonstrate what you’ll do to change that culture and then follow up with proof that you did what you said you’d do
  • Reinforce those lessons in every training session, communications tactic and customer interaction for at least 12 months.

Rebuilding United Airline’s reputation will take a dedication to change and to talk about that change until people believe it. If the company can truly live that change they can, over time, change STV to WSN – “We’re Smarter Now.”

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