Can you Afford a $180-750M Crisis?

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Can You Afford a PR/Communications Crisis? 

Remember back in 2009 when Guitar Guy versus United was the worst of what could possibly happen to an airline? You remember Guitar Guy right? In which, “..within four days of the song going online, the gathering thunderclouds of bad PR caused United Airlines’ stock price to suffer a mid-flight stall, and it plunged by 10 per cent, costing shareholders $180 million. Which, incidentally, would have bought Carroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.”

Well, we’re sad to say, United has topped itself.

It’s been a turbulent time for airlines as of late (pun intended). Weather issues and overbookings for all airlines have recently laid open the 1970’s policy for profit for overbookings which leads to an extra million or so in the pocket of each airline annually to basically inconvenience and hassle any passenger they choose apparently. One woman outlined this in detail with her three times cancelled flight where she allegedly made over $11K from Delta, just to NOT fly to Florida from New York this past weekend.

With this ethical fuckery aside, the biggest blow out came on Sunday night with United Airlines in the thuggish removal of an elderly passenger off of a Chicago to Louisville flight that needed to recoup four seats for United Airlines employees to taxi back to their home base.

The CEO of United, Oscar Munoz and ironically, PRWeek’s “Communicator of the Year” (it’s okay to LOL here if you want – also to reflect on the idiocracy of large scale industry awards that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars just to enter thereby already narrowing the field substantially to those with mega means) has decided opted to take the position of “this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

In the event that you have turned a blind eye to United’s flight practices as of late (don’t forget Leggings-Gate from a few weeks ago) a passenger, David Dao (69 –oh and a DOCTOR who had patients to see on Monday which is why he didn’t volunteer to give up his seat when the airline asked for volunteers to take a delay) was deboarded in a hostile way drawing a few bazillion video hits on the handful of videos flying around (the not so friendly skies) showing Dao being literally dragged screaming from the plane as his face was bashed into an armrest causing a head wound by the “independently” operated Chicago Aviation Police.

The Chicago Police who had a likewise stellar response to the incident by filing a report that said that “around 6 p.m. on Sunday, a 69-year-old passenger “became irate” after he was asked to leave the plane. The passenger in question began yelling to voice his displeasure at which point Aviation Police were summoned. The officers were attempting to carry the man off the flight when he fell. His head subsequently struck an armrest causing injuries to his face.”

They added that the man was taken to a hospital and treated for non-life threatening injuries and that an investigation into the incident was still ongoing. Most news outlets also reported that “multiple attempts to reach the Department of Aviation for comment were not immediately returned.” Anyone who viewed or views this video, can deduce that this is not actually what happened – here are a few good ones if you are interested:

So far this guy, while being a little bit of a self-promoting rube, kinda has it figured out:

Everyone’s A Reporter 

In the era of “everyone’s a reporter” digital crisis and reputation management are a whole ‘nother animal.  We’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth the reminder. The Wilcox (2003) Conflict Management Life Cycle looks like this moving pretty linearly from left to right and then lather, rinse, repeat:

Crisis model: Proactive, strategic, reactive, Recovery

In the digital era, you have to add to that three roles to these stages, they are:

1) Monitor-Proactive: what is happening? Where is it happening? How long has it been happening? What are we doing to fix it?

2) Broadcast-Strategic/Reactive: hey guys we are human and good and we are willing to help! Tell the world about this. Broadcast near and far and often.

3) Engage-Reactive/Recovery: dial into empathy and strap yourself into that desk chair a second and answer EVERY.SINGLE.LAST.TWEET.POST.PHOTO.VIDEO. I know this will cost you more man hours, but it’s better than losing your brand forever, plus if you were truly proactive we wouldn’t even be here we would have headed the issue off before it went viral.

And despite the fact that your viral fuckup has given rise to many, many trolls and your feelings are probably hurt while you are now panicking, crises really are an opportunity to learn (about customers, blind spots, perceptions) as the criticism comes from people who care enough about your org. to invest time. So stop feeling sorry for yourself and pick up the pieces.

You Have a Brand to Rescue – Tips for Managing Crisis Communication

We advocate for the following steps for brand rescue following what feels like a never-ending battle for public redemption:

  1. Do no harm – can you fix it? Should you fix it? Probably yes. Probably like 5 minutes ago so let’s get crackin’.
  2. Be a human being – by being fair, transparent, empathetic and personal. It’s easy to argue with a big behemoth brand, harder to argue with a person, named Sue doing the best she can to keep up with the Tweets on a Tuesday at 3am.
  3. Take it offline, if possible – in this case there is no going back, so work to keep folks apprised of the backchannel on goings if you are able to do so legally. The public has a right to know and then formulate an opinion of your progress. If you don’t tell them, they will find out by other means.
  4. Document everything and don’t double back – did you mention you would do something early on and you didn’t? We have your permanent record it’s called the internet cache. Screenshots exist, nothing is done in a vacuum anymore. So put your money where your mouth is.

So you’re thinking…how bad could it get? We don’t have the money for a crisis communications response plan in advance, so we will just wait for a crisis to happen and figure it out as we go.

Well, spoiler alert: this type of hackish thinking just cost United Air’s market capitalization, or the current value of the company $750 million following a passenger assaulted, bloodied and dragged off a flight on Monday. These are the kind of numbers that seem out of scale if you are a small business right? Wrong. While this is just a small hit to United’s shareholders, a crisis would likely bankrupt your small business. Maybe you should get to work on that plan after all – don’t worry, we can help.


Update 4/11 at 1:17pm: the plot thickens

Tweet of Lisa Fletcher showing "troubled past" of the doctor pulled off United

– apparently the doctor has a “troubled past” – do not be fooled by this type of media urgency, it doesn’t matter. Why not? Well, the airline didn’t know of the “troubled past” when they were hauling him off the plane. Unless they are able to prove he has some kind of terrorist device on board, and by chance they thwarted some alleged attack, they still just hauled a man off a plane against his will like a bunch of barbarians.

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