This week's United's PR disaster was a lot of things, just not at all surprising. As a former San Francisco resident who flew the airline from its near monopoly at the SFO HUB frequently for many years, I have plenty of mostly negative stories. The disdainful attitude of the "team" is in complete contrast with the way Southwest Airlines values warmth. When I begrudgingly fly United, I expect to have a poor experience with flight attendants. If I have anything less than very positive staff interactions on Southwest, I'm shocked. How's that for a juxtaposition of a brand bars being set very low and high?
With the latest PR crisis involving the forcible removal of a bumped passenger, in addition to disdain, United demonstrates a severe lack of communications and overall leadership. The company's first response was a canned non-statement taking little responsibility and blaming the passenger. Then only after criticism (further fueled by their initial response) continued to mount, United issued an additional more apologetic statement finally taking responsibility. The damage continues with a social spiral downward and United's "fly the friendly skies" tagline becoming a late night television parody. One more story for the UntIed site which has been hosting company complaints for the since 2011.
Regardless of whether or not the passenger was difficult or belligerent (some have reported on his medical license loss and legal troubles), United could have handled this much more smoothly and avoided more costly brand image damage. More on that later...
Thankfully, PR crises are more rare in the wine industry. However, they do happen. There are a few best practices, and I recommend creating, documenting and sharing an internal protocol so that you are prepared if a problem occurs.
Step 1 – Deal with the situation immediately. Trying to "buy time" often backfires. Alert senior management who should stop all nonessential activity to strategize. Communicate about what happened, how you will address it and discuss how you will prevent it from happening again. Do this in person or via phone to ensure that tone, which is paramount, is correctly conveyed.
Step 2 – "Own" any mistakes. Do not make excuses. Seek to understand why the problem developed and what errors were made internally.
Step 3 – Create and edit a professional statement. Write up a synopsis that states the facts of what occurred, identifies and apologizes for any internal mistakes, provides evidence of actions taken to correct the problem, and clearly outlines lessons learned and preventative measures that will be put into place. Be sure this passes through a legal lens, but is not so scrubbed that it becomes a non-statement, which will come across as an attempt to hide, abdicate responsibility or worse.
Step 4 – Rehearse then share the statement. Practice does make perfect, and in this case the rehearsal is to avoid the common mistakes of excuse making and improper tone. In the wine industry, this is typically done via email and social media. In larger sectors, it is often a written piece and televised statement.
Step 5 – Implement. Do what you stated you were going to do. Follow up with all involved on the new preventative measures. Communicate progress with stakeholders after a little time has passed. Seek feedback from employees and customers.
You might just end with with a service recovery paradox if you handle a difficult situation truly well! This is when a dissatisfied customer turns into a fan because his expectations have been vastly exceeded. To accomplish that, all United needed to do was provide a compensation for bumping that would *excite* everyone on board and create a line of those looking to deplane.
How about two round-trip tickets to anywhere United flies? Give someone the trip of a lifetime in exchange for the inconvenience, and build a social media rainbow instead of a tornado. Sure, it might cost $10,000, but assuredly less than the boycotts, lawsuit and brand damage that is not yet complete.
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