Three Lessons From the United Airlines Fiasco On How to Manage a PR Crisis

Last week, the Internet and social media exploded with criticism of United Airlines for forcefully removing a 69-year old Dr. David Dao from United Express Flight 3411. Passengers captured the entire episode on smartphones and the videos went viral. Irate consumers vowed to boycott the airline, the unfortunate passenger is pressing charges and a problem that could have been solved with a diplomatic solution has turned into a public relations nightmare.

In today’s world, widespread adoption of smartphones and social media has changed the relationship between brands and consumers. What used to be a monologue is now a dialog. In other words, consumers now have the power to shape brand storytelling by advocating for or protesting against brands, and they can share their opinions with hundreds, if not thousands, of friends online who can then use their own networks to further spread the word. This new media landscape makes it nearly impossible for brands to cover-up controversial information and demands authenticity, accountability, and transparency. Now more than ever, it’s critical to maintain a positive brand image to avoid public relations crisis.

Here are three ways to avoid a public relations crisis:

1. Ensure profits don’t jeopardize company values: It goes without saying that customer service is vital to any successful business; however, what happens when user experience is at odds with the bottom line?

To maximize occupancy and profits, airlines often overbook flights with the expectation that some passengers won’t show up. Similarly, as was the case on Flight 3411, carriers will move flight attendants to a different location so they can work their next shift. Last week, United removed Dr. Dao to ensure crew members made their connection; otherwise the next flight would have been canceled.

In essence, the company’s desire to cut costs outweighed its dedication to customer service. In the end, the incident ended up costing the company far more money than finding an alternative solution, displayed poor customer service and tarnished the brand.

The key takeaway here is that you must prioritize purposeful values over short-term profits, which will strengthen consumer loyalty, improve reputation and lay the foundation for a successful business in the long run. What’s more, it is important to establish policies that cover unlikely but difficult to handle situations, and have a dynamic yet flexible playbook that employees can reference when they’re unsure of what to do.

2. Immediately take responsibility for actions: After the incident, the company’s CEO Oscar Munoz wrote a letter in which he admonished Dr. Dao for his “defiance of both our crew and security officials.”

After fielding increasing numbers of complaints from consumers and the media, Munoz changed his stance. Instead of defending the airline, Munoz took “full responsibility” for the actions, promised to review and revise company policy and vowed that this would never happen again.

Although he eventually admitted wrongdoing and changed company policy, Munoz originally responded with defiance, which fanned the flames of consumer furry.

The lesson here is that if a crisis situation does arise it is vital to work on reestablishing trust by immediately admitting faults, promising to mend shortcomings, and demonstrating accountability.

3. Be mindful of how social media shapes brand storytelling: The day after the incident, United Airlines’ Facebook page received over 135,000 engagements — compared with 700 the day before — most of which criticized them for the unacceptable conduct.

While social media can be used to castigate irresponsible corporate behavior, it can also be a place for brands to engage with consumers and inspire them to be brand ambassadors. In fact, studies show that consumers are over 60 percent more likely to recommend a brand if they have engaged with them via social media.

Ultimately, social media offers amazing opportunities for brands to interact with consumers and this should be something that is done every day, not only when responding to crisis. A great way to keep consumers engaged is by creating contests, inviting consumers to vote on which NGOs should receive corporate donations, and creating emotionally touching videos that demonstrate brand purpose.

In today’s technologically connected world, consumer activism through social media is now commonplace. People are eager to support ethically responsible brands and equally ready to oppose companies that go against consumer values. To thrive as a socially conscious business leader you must invest in purpose not only in marketing initiatives, but also customer service and employee culture. If you do receive allegations, respond with authenticity, accountability and transparency. In turn, you will mitigate crisis situations before they escalate and be a part of the growing number of social good-minded companies changing capitalism for the better.

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Written by

CEO We First Inc, author NYT's bestseller We First, strategic corporate consultant and trainer, father, Australian, optimist.

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