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Three Lessons Your Company Can Learn from the United Airlines Crisis

United Airlines

In the 96 hours that have elapsed since authorities dragged United Airlines passenger David Dao from his seat, videos showing the incident have surpassed 10 million views, the company’s market cap has shriveled by as much as $1.4 billion, and the public outcry for CEO Oscar Muñoz’s ouster has reached a fever pitch.

None of this had to happen. As bad as the underlying event was, United committed three mistakes that made the situation far worse, ensuring it would grow into a full-blown global crisis. Leaders of all service-based companies should take heed—if it can happen to PRWeek’s newly crowned “communicator of the year,” it can happen to you.

Here are the lessons the United story teaches us:

Be prepared to respond immediately.

United was woefully slow to respond when the story broke, creating a vacuum that was quickly filled with media coverage focusing on the social media uproar rather than the airline’s reaction to it.

In today’s world of smartphone video and live-casting, no brand can afford to “wing it” like this. An effective crisis-management plan is ready to go long before any problem occurs, and its team has already been drilled in simulated scenarios. In a real crisis, the response they produce must be ready within minutes.

Acting this quickly serves two important purposes. First, it gives your most loyal customers the rationale they need to continue supporting the brand. Next, it provides the media an opportunity to focus on you and your message, rather than the underlying event. In the end, your company may even come out stronger.

Image Courtesy of Visual Capitalist

Image Courtesy of Visual Capitalist

Acknowledge the problem unequivocally, and then explain what you’re doing about it.

When United’s CEO finally went public, his initial response not only failed to propose a solution, it brazenly suggested there wasn’t a problem in the first place. It’s one thing for a corporate head to come across as tone-deaf with respect to an isolated incident, but in this case Muñoz seemed dramatically out-of-touch with every United customer who has had a negative experience associated with overbooking.

When a public crisis involving your organization occurs, your first job as a corporate leader is not to win an argument—it is to defuse the situation. Being argumentative merely prolongs that situation, and in United’s case it’s a mistake that appears to have cost the company dearly.

A more effective crisis response acknowledges the problem and at the very least announces an internal investigation into its causes. If appropriate, it addresses a solution. When it comes to that solution, don’t be afraid to propose one that seems larger than necessary—if the public thinks you’re paying them no more than lip service, the crisis will itself become larger.

Take external service providers into account, and make sure everyone is on the same page.

No matter what business your brand is in, it is likely that one or more external partners are somehow involved in the delivery of your product or service. We all now know that United tasked local law enforcement officials with removing Dr. Dao from the airplane once airline staff deemed him to be “uncooperative.” It may have been their conduct that caused the crisis, but this information was slow to surface.

Before designing your organization’s crisis-management plan, identify all external service providers that might cause or exacerbate a public crisis and make sure the roles they play in a response are well-defined. If possible, include them in your crisis simulations. The goal is not to point fingers at guilty parties after a crisis has occurred, but rather to minimize confusion and take action in a unified way, providing the situation with rapid closure.

Did United consider these possibilities before this week’s crisis? Judging by the airline's recent announcement that police would be removed from their role, it seems not.

Every organization that serves the public will at some point face a crisis that threatens the value of its brand, and the evolution of digital technology and the media make the speed and scope of those crises all the more dangerous. As an executive, the day may come when you will be judged on how well you respond to one of them.

What would you do if that day were tomorrow?

If you aren’t yet sure, contact Copper Squared. We can help.


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