The past several days have been a public relations nightmare for United Airlines and it does not appear that things will be improving for the embattled airline and its CEO, Oscar Munoz in the near future. The United saga began when Dr. David Dao was violently dragged off a Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY flight due to the flight being overbooked and room being needed for 4 flight crew. The entire incident was filmed by other passengers with their smartphones. Dr. Dao was so badly injured that he will need reconstructive surgery. Compounding the damage was the tone deaf response from the airline, particularly its CEO, Oscar Munoz, to the incident. Munoz originally praised United’s employees and blamed Dao for the incident. After an international furor aroused, fueled on social media and late night television, Munoz apologized to Dao finally and made an appearance on Good Morning America that made him look anything but sincere.
Added to this debacle were fresh news stories of other passengers who had been threatened when United had overbooked flights, allegations that United Airlines was behind negative stories appearing in the media about Dao’s past, and reports that United was considering suing passengers who had recorded the Dao incident. United is of course facing lawsuits. The company’s market share has dropped by an estimated billion dollars. United’s public image is in ruins.
Soon things will get even worse for United. In the next few weeks, United will announce Munoz’s annual bonus that is expected to be $10 million or more. The cause for the bonus is raising United’s short term profits. How did Munoz achieve this? By having the airline sell more tickets for flights than they have seats (overbooking) and refusing to pay passengers enough to voluntarily give up their seats. The core reasons that led to the crisis United is facing.
So what should United do to begin repairing its image?
- Announce that it is deferring Munoz’s bonus. Or even better, have him announce he is rejecting it or donating it to charity.
- Announce that it will discontinue overbooking. Yes, the practice is legal and other airlines do it but this practice is now lethal for United.
- Munoz needs to do more interviews apologizing not only to Dao but all customers and announce what steps the airline is taking to assure better customer service.
- Announce a companywide customer service training program for all employees.
- Take out full page advertisements in leading newspapers across the nation apologizing and announcing again the steps the company is doing to improve the customer experience on all flights.
United needs to realize that the damage its reputation has suffered has been severe. It isn’t fatal but the longer the company takes in moving forward with its crisis recovery program, the worse its reputation will be.
United Airlines continues to generate bad publicity days after a man was violently dragged off a Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY flight due to the flight being overbooked and room being needed for 4 flight crew. The entire incident was filmed by other passengers with their smartphones. The man was bloodied as he was dragged on the floor from his seat. Compounding the damage was the tone deaf response from the airline, particularly its CEO, Oscar Munoz, to the incident. The entire story provides several lessons that business leaders can learn from and apply during a crisis.
- The CEO of the company is the public face of the company and his or her words reflect on the entire company. Following the incident and the ensuing media coverage, United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement merely apologizing for any inconvenience passengers may have experienced but never addressing the specific incident nor apologizing to the passenger directly. That statement alone was viewed as insensitive but then Munoz added to the media firestorm by sending a letter to United employees praising them for how they handled the situation and labeling the passenger as belligerent despite video contradicting this accusation. Munoz’s statements became the public face of United Airlines and has drawn condemnation and ridicule from the media, the public, and Hollywood. It has angered the Chinese market (the passenger was Chinese) which is United’s key growth market and driven down the airline’s stock by over a billion dollars. Munoz came across as uncaring in his response and as a result all of United is now perceived that way.
- Apologies Matter (and how they are worded even more). What should have been a one day media story has now been spread across several days and counting, due to Munoz’s lack of apology. If Munoz had offered a strong apology for what happened and condemned the actions, the media would be moving on by now. Rather by failing to issue a strongly worded apology and blaming the passenger, Munoz has kept the story alive in the media causing more days of bad press for United. His response has become a bigger story than the original incident and is overshadowing the original report.
- Everything can be recorded with a smartphone. Think of any television show (Chicago PD, Law & Order SVU, Chicago Justice, The Catch) where the police make an arrest or rough up a suspect and all of the bystanders are recording it with their phones. This isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood, it happens every day. Part of the reason this story got the amount of play that it has (besides United’s poor crisis management) is that fellow passengers were able to video the entire incident with their smartphones. The video images brought to life the episode in a powerful, emotional, and impactful way and created a readymade story for the media. People often forget anytime an incident happens people begin recording with their smartphones. Every occurence is now just not reported upon but has video accompanying it due to bystanders recording it.
- Social media drives narratives. This point cannot be stated enough. Social media is driving this story with the hashtag being #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos (#NeedCrisisManagement should be United’s hashtag in this crisis). The result is the traditional media is reporting on the social media outrage.
United Airlines serves as a lesson on what not to do during a crisis. Hopefully other companies will learn from United’s mistakes.
Social media drives narratives. That cannot be said enough. Social media can also create a crisis where none existed. Many brands are finding this out firsthand in the current politically charged and polarized environment.
Today’s consumers expect brands to tell a story and share their values including their political values. Many brands have for years avoided taking stands on political issues and politicians as they knew such a stand would antagonize some consumers and cost them sales. Yet more and more brands are finding that they can’t sidestep political issues. Consumers are taking to social media demanding to know where a brand stands on an issue or political personality. We have seen this just recently with consumers taking to social media to demand of brands where do they stand on FOX News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly and stories of sexual harassment. This social media outrage has led numerous advertisers to pull their advertising from his show.
Very often brands are caught unprepared for the social media outrage that creates a crisis for them. They need to be proactive, especially in this socially media driven world where a tweet on Twitter can be more powerful than the best devised public relations campaign and lead to numerous negative media stories.
What should companies do?
- Identify potential issues that consumers care about and might demand to know where the brand stands on the issue.
- Identify potential activists, antagonists, supporters, and media that would be involved in such a media crisis.
- Practice stimulations of a potential social media crisis driven by the brand’s stand on a particular issue.
- Respond at once when the crisis erupts.
- Engage on social media. Remember brands are all about engaging consumers on social media about various positive news items. But too often, they fail to do that when a crisis hits. That is a mistake.
A crisis can happen at any time. In today’s polarized world social media often both creates and defines a crisis. To survive such a crisis, a brand must be ready.
Social media creates news – both positive and negative. Businesses of all sizes are finding out that social media posts can create a crisis where one did not exist. How a business responds to such a post can determine if it becomes a crisis or not. The saga of Cracker Barrel and Brad’s wife is a vivid example of what not to do when a social media crisis erupts.
A Milltown, Indiana man named Bradley Byrd claimed his wife, Nanette, was fired from the Cracker Barrel in Corydon, Indiana on his birthday after 11 years of service. Byrd posted a question on Cracker Barrel’s Facebook page asking, “Why did you fire my wife?”
From there, the internet took over. Visitors to the Cracker Barrel Facebook page are unable to post on the wall, so they’ve turned to the company’s posts to find out what happened and to show their support for Brad’s wife. Some of the comments are quite funny. #JusticeForBradsWife and #BradsWife are trending. The media is reporting on the social media outrage. Yet Cracker Barrel is remaining mum to the growing story both with the traditional media and on social media. While companies will not state why an employee was terminated, Cracker Barrel is not even acknowledging the comments and is acting as if nothing is happening as it continues to post advertisements on social media. That hasn’t stopped the social media outrage or other businesses from jumping in and making use of the tagline Brad’s wife.
Cracker Barrel is coming across as uncaring, unresponsive, and ridiculous all at the same time. Consumers are angry at a lack of any response or acknowledgement from the company which results in even more outraged posts. That is a place where no business wants to be.
So what should Cracker Barrel do?
- Acknowledge the posts on its Facebook page. A simple statement saying thank you for your post. We appreciate hearing from you and while we value your opinion, employee records are confidential and something we cannot comment on. Such a statement would at least demonstrate that Cracker Barrel is paying attention to what people (many of them customers) are posting. By ignoring them, the company is basically sending the message that it doesn’t care what people (customers) think.
- Post testimonials online from employees on what a great place Cracker Barrel is to work for and how the company cares about its employees.
- Post online how much the company values its customers and their opinions.
- Depending on the reason for the termination, Cracker Barrel should rehire Brad’s wife and even use her in advertising.
What Cracker Barrel is doing is what no company should do when facing a social firestorm – nothing. This allowed the story to go from social media to traditional media, making Cracker Barrel a butt of late night jokes and the object of consumer anger. As a result of not having a crisis management plan in place for a social media crisis, Cracker Barrel has allowed Brad’s wife to get the last laugh and serve as a warning to businesses on what not to do during a crisis.
The other day, I wrote a crisis communications strategy for the Trump White House. It was the conventional crisis communications strategy that would normally apply for any Administration facing the issues that President Trump confronts. Yet in another sense, he doesn’t need a conventional crisis communications strategy and if he followed one it would actually do more harm than good.
What you say? Look at all the negative media coverage the Trump Administration is earning. It moves from one crisis to another (his press conference attacking the media was just the latest example). That is true in the conventional sense. Yet what we are forgetting is that Donald Trump’s presidency, just as his campaign is anything but conventional.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump was discounted. His attack against John McCain inferring that McCain was not a hero was supposed to doom his campaign yet his poll numbers increased. Trump’s running feud with Megyn Kelly was going to be the end of the campaign, yet it reverberated in Trump’s favor. There was no way he could win the Republican nomination with all of his verbal stumbles yet he emerged as the Republican nominee. Hillary Clinton was a sure winner against Trump, conventional wisdom held. The debates were viewed as a disaster and of course there was the infamous Access Hollywood tape. Yet rather than bow to traditional crisis management, Trump doubled down attacking his enemies and never backing down. On Election Night, he scored the greatest political upset since Harry Truman in 1948.
Trump’s success can be attributed to one thing more than anything else – his brand. The public has known the Trump brand for decades. It is flamboyant, never backs down and bucks conventional wisdom. This is what voters bought into during the 2016 election – the Trump brand. Voters believed in the brand and that Trump was not a regular politician.
For Trump now to follow a traditional crisis management response would go against that brand story that his voters bought into. Based upon polls, Trump’s base is staying with him. In many ways, Trump is like Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty who apologized if his remarks offended anyone but never backed away from his remarks and the public rallied around him because it was consistent with his brand story. For Trump to change is strategy and eschew to traditional crisis management steps would be to go against his brand story.
Brands watching Trump should realize that consumers buy into a brand’s identity during both good and bad times. During a crisis, if a brand approaches a response not consistent with its identity it runs the risk of alienating its consumers and losing its unique identity. Donald Trump understands that lesson and that is why we cannot expect to see traditional crisis management from him.
Small and medium sized businesses while knowing they need a public relations strategy often do not include a crisis communications plan in that strategy. Many of these businesses believe crisis communications plans are only for major corporations and they will never face a crisis that needs a detailed response. In this highly polarized political climate and social media driven world nothing could be more mistaken.
Recently I was called upon to help a medium sized engineering firm that was caught in the firestorm and fallout from the feud between Donald Trump and Congressman John Lewis. We all remember Congressman Lewis, a Civil rights icon saying he would not attend Donald Trump’s inauguration as he did not see Trump as a “legitimate president” and Trump’s Twitter response. Partisans on both sides jumped into the fray. One who did so was a county commissioner in Gwinnett County, Georgia who posted on his personal Facebook page a post claiming that Congressman Lewis was a “racist pig” among other things. Of course nothing goes unnoticed on social media and soon the traditional media was involved. Most of the media was focused on the commissioner and his fellow commissioners as he was an elected official. He also is a contract employee with an engineering firm. There was no major viral footprint linking him to the company. One industrious blogger however found the connection and began broadcasting the fact to his followers and the media. This company has extensive contracts with local municipalities and is actually minority owned. It was totally unprepared and unaware of the firestorm that was to erupt.
The first sign of trouble was when the company began receiving phone calls from the public demanding to know how they could employ such a person and threatening demonstrations outside of its office. Soon their social media sites were under attack by people posting comments attacking the company for ever having employed such a person. This was soon followed by media phone calls. Employees knew something was happening but not sure what was happening nor what the company was doing. The company had no basic crisis communications plan to deal with any of this and lost a news cycle.
Addressing this crisis was a top priority and one that any sized company should learn from. Among the items instituted were:
- Determining a company spokesperson.
- Developing a social media response for the negative posts.
- Informing employees what was going on and how the company was responding, as well as how they should handle any inquiries they might receive and who to refer it too.
- Developing a social media policy for company employees (remember what employees post on their personal pages reflect upon the company and can become the basis of a crisis).
- Developing a formal response to media inquiries that included condemning the post and hand delivering an apology to Congressman Lewis.
- Informing clients and vendors of what was going on and how the company was responding.
- Announcing that the company was conducting another sensitivity class for all employees.
As quickly as the firestorm had erupted it died down. In fact the company began earning praise by addressing the issue and issuing an apology. While the story continued to dominate headlines, the company was no longer mentioned or a part of the narrative.
So yes, small and medium sized businesses, when you develop your public relations strategy, you need to include a basic crisis communications plan as part of that strategy. In this day and age with social media and polarization, the chances of a crisis hitting a company regardless of size increases daily. If a company ignores that, they do it at their own peril.
Social media drives narratives and brands react to the social media narrative. This means that many of the old rules of crisis communications no longer apply as social media drives a crisis regardless if everything was handled correctly or not in addressing the situation with the media and key stakeholders.
We saw this happen this week with tennis star, Maria Sharapova. Sharapova, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, admitted that she had tested positive for the recently banned drug, meldonium while doing a standard drug test at the Australian Open. The five-time Grand Slam champion announced that she had tested positive and that she had been taking the drug for health reasons since 2006. The drug had just recently been banned. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced that it was provisionally suspending Sharapova as of March 12, 2016. From a crisis communications response, Sharapova had done everything right. She was proactive in announcing the scandal herself rather than allowing it to be announced in the media and losing a news cycle. Normally that would have defused the situation considerably, save for social media.
Social media, particularly Twitter exploded with attacks on Sharapova and implications that there were even darker scandals that she was hiding and hoping to avoid coming to light by her admission. Many traditional media outlets as has become commonplace began picking up the Twitter comments and doing speculative stories on what other scandals involving the tennis great might emerge next.
Sponsors of Sharapova who have stood by stars with far worse scandals – Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Kobe Bryant, and Lance Armstrong bailed from their sponsorships of her. First Nike announced that it was suspending its relationship with her. Porsche and TAG Heuer quickly followed suit. Others are expected to join them. The major reason wasn’t because of Sharapova’s admission but rather the social media outcry, particularly on Twitter. Brands react more to social media outrage than traditional media coverage and traditional media coverage now follows social media outrage to keep a crisis alive.
This leads to the point that in crisis communications, no longer must a crisis communications strategy be developed to deal with the media and key stakeholders, now a social media policy must be included in any successful plan. Bloggers and key influencers on Twitter and Facebook, as well as, the average person must be addressed via a clear social media policy during a crisis. If not as we are seeing a firestorm will ensure and brands will bail. Maria Sharapova is the first but certainly not the last to fall victim to the new rules of crisis communications in the social media world of today.