It’s been difficult this week not to turn on the TV or surf the internet without seeing disturbing video of a Louisville physician, his face bloodied, being dragged off a United Airlines jet in Chicago last Sunday.
What precipitated the incident was fairly straightforward – the flight became overbooked when the airline failed to account for an aircrew that needed transport to Louisville, Ky., to operate a flight the next morning. So first they asked, and then they demanded, that four passengers leave the plane.
To hear the airline tell it, however, the cause of the incident had nothing to do with overbooking or bad planning. As explained by a United Airlines spokesperson, the problem was that not enough passengers “volunteered” to give up their seats, thus causing “an involuntary deboarding scenario.” This was followed by a statement from the airline CEO praising employees for following proper procedures and casting blame on a “disruptive and belligerent” passenger who failed to “deplane” even after he was “politely asked” to leave.
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The cost so far? About 3 percent of their stock price, or $600 million.
That gap between what the airline says and what our eyes can see is why United is facing a crisis. They keep digging themselves a hole and haven’t figured out when to stop. Even their attempt at an apology on Tuesday fell short when it failed to pull back or repudiate the CEO’s assertion that the injured customer was disruptive.
The rules for effective crisis communication are not exotic or complex. They’re based on common sense, respect for the truth and respect for the people affected by your company’s mistake. In other words:
If you screw up, own it and apologize.
Communicate early, often and accurately. You need to show you understand what happened, explain how you’re going to fix it and then follow through.
Be available 24/7 in person or via social media. Don’t allow an information vacuum; anticipate what the public, regulators and the media need to know and give it to them.
Just last week, we saw how Pepsi handled a PR situation that could have spiraled out of control. After designing an ad campaign around celebrity spokesperson Kendall Jenner that was widely criticized for insensitivity toward police, Black Lives Matter and other groups, Pepsi pulled the ads after just one day and apologized, saying that while they were “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding … we clearly missed the mark.”
Here in Northern California, we saw how local authorities and the state Department of Water Resources handled the crisis at Oroville Dam. They mobilized on a Sunday afternoon, coordinated the action of dozens of agencies and kept the public fully informed with daily news conferences, web updates and any other means at their disposal. They did an outstanding job.
In United’s situation, they failed at the get-go. They blame their own customers for the problem, not poor decision-making at the company. They explained themselves in obtuse corporate-speak that no one understands and literally added insult to injury by blaming the customer who had been beaten and dragged from their aircraft. To make matters worse, the statement by United’s CEO was more about how hard this incident has been on himself and employees at the airline than it was about the injured man and three other passengers ejected from the aircraft.
So, in the end, what should the CEO have said? Something this simple:
“We are tremendously sorry for how this customer was treated and have already reached out to let him know. This clearly didn’t meet our standard or any standard of customer service, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Never underestimate the value of a sincere apology.
Kevin Eckery is a former press secretary to Gov. Pete Wilson and a Sacramento-based crisis management and political consultant. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.