Preparing for a Hard Landing: Today’s Crisis PR 101

12 Apr Preparing for a Hard Landing: Today’s Crisis PR 101


United Crisis

Whenever a corporate crisis or public gaffe occurs, I often get questions from colleagues, friends and family on what my PR perspective is. This week’s United Airlines incident has by far created the most inquiries from people asking me, “What would you recommend United do now?”

Simple answer… communicate promptly, communicate factually and communicate often. The speed and “viralness” of this week’s news puts the importance of prompt communication at the forefront.

Like most, our LT Public Relations team has been appalled by this week’s actions (or lack of actions) by United Airlines in the wake of the many blunders. An investigation is currently underway to explore exactly what happened, so I’ll refrain from passing judgement or offer advise without knowing all the exact details.

Regardless, this unique controversy has made me hit the pause button to remind businesses of all sizes of how to prepare and respond to a crisis in today’s viral media world. Immediate, individual and viral media has put everyone in the driver’s seat to report on the news before it hits traditional news outlets. Videos posted on Twitter and Facebook quickly showed “a man being dragged out of his seat and down the aisle of the plane by security officers.” Before United could even blink, the news had already hit, making it challenging for the airline to quickly gather information and respond. *The airline took nearly 18 hours after the incident happened to respond. Good grief!

Each scenario is different and each organization has various internal policies and legal sensitivities to strategically address. But the overarching counsel we provide businesses today when responding to a crisis is as follows:

  • PREPARE. We say, “Crisis Management is 99% preparation…1% execution.” Crisis preparation 101: 1) Develop a tailored crisis plan. 2) Build a crisis Task Force that includes business leaders from multiple departments (not just the CEO and corporate communications). 3) Simulate and practice the roles and goals of each Task Force member by using realistic crisis scenarios. 4) Review the crisis plan at least yearly and practice accordingly. 5) Practice “real life” speed of responding, as the viral world of social media waits for no one.
  • CRISIS IDENTIFICATION PROCESS. Ensure the Task Force has mechanisms in place to identify a crisis and establish the reporting process to ensure the information flows to the Task Force in order to promptly gather the details, prepare a strategy, and, of course, communicate quickly and communicate often.
  • SPOKESPERSON. Identify spokespersons before a crisis arises for both internal (executives/staff) and external (customers, public, media) communications. This doesn’t have to be the CEO. In the case of United Airlines, the CEO appears to be the most logical person due to the severity of the issue. However, it’s not always the chief executive, as she/he should be “flying the plane” (pun intended) and taking care of the matter at hand.
  • RESPOND AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. As stated above, communicate promptly, communicate factually and communicate often. LT Public Relations advocates taking an “inside out” approach to communication during a crisis. It’s tempting to communicate immediately via media or social media to the general public…but refrain. Communicate news and developments first (in this order) to the board, executives, staff, customers, partners, constituents, etc. Media and social media communication is important, but be addressed in priority with internal communication protocol.
  • APOLOGIZE APPROPRIATELY. United’s CEO Oscar Munoz has been pounded by his weak apology approach. Without knowing the circumstances, I can’t offer rationalization on why, how or when Mr. Munoz initially communicated the way he did. In the end, United’s apology was too late and originally came off as defensive. An appropriate apology is simply taking ownership, communicating that lessons have been learned, it won’t happen again and fast action is being taken to address the issue. As the great Winston Churchill said:

“Never let a good crisis go to waste”
Image result for winston churchill

  • WORDS TO ACTION. Don’t just apologize. Back it up with action. This would be a perfect time for United Airlines to communicate the error and showcase how they will address this situation and ensure it never happens again. Overbooking is a part of the airline industry. While this crisis was an extraordinary situation, it shines a light on the complexities of shuffling passengers and, hopefully, some lessons learned on how to do so appropriately. I bet other airlines are taking notice since a similar situation might have just as easily happened to Alaska, American, Delta, etc.
  • ADDRESS AND MOVE ON!  United is currently in damage control. Their reputation was already shaky after their computer outage earlier this year that grounded domestic flights in January. They will need to fix the issue at hand now, then continue to methodically communicate and share insights via multiple channels, including advertisements, social media, media talk shows, grass roots efforts, etc. Most importantly, they should communicate to their staff on the improvements that need to be made, while reassuring their valuable customers that operations will improve. After these next several days, United needs to move on and become better than they’ve been before, without rehashing this unfortunate incident.

Preparing and addressing a corporate crisis is no fun.  However, these fundamentals are offered to ensure a company is immediately ready, communicates appropriately, repairs and learns from the mistakes and then keeps flyin’!