The 3 things United’s PR screwed up …and what it says about their culture

United’s now famous April 10th PR meltdown over Flight 3441 will be a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. You can bet United’s competitors are watching and dissecting what worked and what didn’t to incorporate into their own thinking.

No matter how the Flight 3441 incident turns out for United over time, they made three serious mistakes in the first 24 hours of their PR response that all organizations and communications professionals can learn from and consider for the future.

1)     United justified itself with rules rather than responding with empathy

This error was immediately egregious on Twitter, where the constraints of 140 characters combined with a lack of empathy to make for an inadequate first line response to protecting the brand.

While expressing a hint of regret, apologizing for the “overbook situation” is vague and the tweet as a whole demonstrates a horrific lack of empathy for a passenger that was dragged off the plane bleeding. A basic sense of humanity via an expression of regret for a bad customer experience, no matter who is at fault, is a wise starting point for a very public-facing customer brand.

Notably, this approach to immediate social media responses isn’t uncommon for United. They responded just as poorly to the recent – though less horrific – controversy where several passengers were denied boarding while wearing leggings.

This was one of a number of United tweets on this issue that referred to the rule, not any empathy that a passenger was inconvenienced (and other customers flummoxed). Yes, 140 characters isn’t a lot to work with, but thread a couple tweets or find a way to otherwise express regret and sympathy. A corporate Twitter account is a brand platform, not just a customer service vehicle.

2)     United focused on itself, not the customer, in the CEO’s first statement

The statement leads with how United feels, when interested members of the flying public – and equally aghast journalists covering the story – expected a basic sense of humanity and regret that things ended the way it did. Focusing on themselves is a subtle hint United is still an inward-facing corporate culture, rather than the customer-facing corporate cultures that are thriving today (think Amazon). That’s an understandable reality given a messy corporate merger that required a lot of internal attention (and evoked negative customer responses like this), but it’s a serious problem.

Then there is “re-accommodate;” now a thriving point of mockery on Twitter and destined to live in the annals of ignominious crisis communications responses. That word choice indicated lawyers and/or executives better at business than PR were winning internal crisis messaging battles. No communications professional worth half of what United can pay would use that word by choice.

“Re-accommodate” rendered the feint apology in same sentence moot, while the rest of the text showed little real empathy or serious introspection that United understood something horrible had happened that would make their current and future customers very angry with them unless they addressed it transparently and sincerely.

3)     United blamed the victim in an email to employees rather than be accountable

The leading message in the CEO’s email is standing up for his employees. Supporting the team is an important step for a leader, especially in an environment where organizational culture has challenges. But, there was a better way.

Assuming the employees did “follow established procedures,” there comes a point where as a leader you have to say: “we followed all the rules…and it still resulted in a bad outcome for our customer. We’re going to take a hard look at how we do business to make sure our customers get the experience we hope to provide every day.”

I worked in health insurance for years. We found a lot of procedures designed to provide an efficient internal solution but didn’t produce the desired customer experience. It’s not rocket science to identify, but acting on it requires leadership.

The second message in the email was to blame the victim, declaring him “belligerent and disruptive.” That might have worked in the era before social media and smart phone videos. It doesn’t now. A 69-year-old, bespectacled doctor was dragged bleeding from one of your company’s airplanes, United. The lay viewer isn’t going to believe he’s at fault, especially after he properly took his assigned seat during the boarding process and was only then told to get off because one of your employees needed the seat instead.

After all that, the CEO’s vague talk of “lessons we can learn” and treating customers “with respect and dignity” at the end of the note were near worthless because the rest of the email was so bad.

What it all means

It’s fair to speculate some of United own employees reacted adversely after seeing the news coverage of their employer and contrasted that with their CEO’s email. Or a rough Tuesday on Wall Street for United woke up the executive team. Or the communications professionals started winning the internal messaging war. Whatever the sequence or combination, someone at United wrote an infinitely better response for the CEO today, declaring the incident “truly horrific,” expressing “deepest apologies,” and saying “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”

More importantly for any attempt to heal the company’s reputation, the CEO pledged to “make it right” and review all the applicable policies and procedures involved in the sequence of events.

Outstanding.

Except it was more than a day and several news cycles too late, after large swaths of the flying public saw the news, saw United’s initial responses, and have already soured on the United brand. Instead of doing the right thing on day one, United will have to win back the customers it lost with its first 24 hours of bumbling. That’s going to cost them.

What happens to United is anyone’s guess. But, learning from their experience provides a good place to start for leaders and communications professionals finding themselves in a similarly unenviable crisis in the future:

  • Show empathy
  • Focus on the customer
  • Take responsibility

Simple rules to avoid a lot of trouble in this era of fast-moving modern media.

United’s now famous April 10th PR meltdown over Flight 3441 will be a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. You can bet United’s competitors are watching and dissecting what worked and what didn’t to incorporate into their own thinking.

No matter how the Flight 3441 incident turns out for United over time, they made three serious mistakes in the first 24 hours of their PR response that all organizations and communications professionals can learn from and consider for the future.

1)     United justified itself with rules rather than responding with empathy

This error was immediately egregious on Twitter, where the constraints of 140 characters combined with a lack of empathy to make for an inadequate first line response to protecting the brand.

While expressing a hint of regret, apologizing for the “overbook situation” is vague and the tweet as a whole demonstrates a horrific lack of empathy for a passenger that was dragged off the plane bleeding. A basic sense of humanity via an expression of regret for a bad customer experience, no matter who is at fault, is a wise starting point for a very public-facing customer brand.

Notably, this approach to immediate social media responses isn’t uncommon for United. They responded just as poorly to the recent – though less horrific – controversy where several passengers were denied boarding while wearing leggings.

This was one of a number of United tweets on this issue that referred to the rule, not any empathy that a passenger was inconvenienced (and other customers flummoxed). Yes, 140 characters isn’t a lot to work with, but thread a couple tweets or find a way to otherwise express regret and sympathy. A corporate Twitter account is a brand platform, not just a customer service vehicle.

2)     United focused on itself, not the customer, in the CEO’s first statement

The statement leads with how United feels, when interested members of the flying public – and equally aghast journalists covering the story – expected a basic sense of humanity and regret that things ended the way it did. Focusing on themselves is a subtle hint United is still an inward-facing corporate culture, rather than the customer-facing corporate cultures that are thriving today (think Amazon). That’s an understandable reality given a messy corporate merger that required a lot of internal attention (and evoked negative customer responses like this), but it’s a serious problem.

Then there is “re-accommodate;” now a thriving point of mockery on Twitter and destined to live in the annals of ignominious crisis communications responses. That word choice indicated lawyers and/or executes better at business than PR were winning internal crisis messaging battles. No communications professional worth half of what United can pay would use that word by choice.

“Re-accommodate” rendered the feint apology in same sentence moot, while the rest of the text showed little real empathy or serious introspection that United understood something horrible had happened that would make their current and future customers very angry with them unless they addressed it transparently and sincerely.

3)     United blamed the victim in an email to employees rather than be accountable

The leading message in the CEO’s email is standing up for his employees. Supporting the team is an important step for a leader, especially in an environment where organizational culture has challenges. But, there was a better way.

Assuming the employees did “follow established procedures,” there comes a point where as a leader you have to say: “we followed all the rules…and it still resulted in a bad outcome for our customer. We’re going to take a hard look at how we do business to make sure our customers get the experience we hope to provide every day.”

I worked in health insurance for years. We found a lot of procedures designed to provide an efficient internal solution but didn’t produce the desired customer experience. It’s not rocket science to identify, but acting on it requires leadership.

The second message in the email was to blame the victim, declaring him “belligerent and disruptive.” That might have worked in the era before social media and smart phone videos. It doesn’t now. A 69-year-old, bespectacled doctor was dragged bleeding from one of your company’s airplanes, United. The lay viewer isn’t going to believe he’s at fault, especially after he properly took his assigned seat during the boarding process and was only then told to get off because one of your employees needed the seat instead.

After all that, the CEO’s vague talk of “lessons we can learn” and treating customers “with respect and dignity” at the end of the note were near worthless because the rest of the email was so bad.

What it all means

It’s fair to speculate some of United own employees reacted adversely after seeing the news coverage of their employer and contrasted that with their CEO’s email. Or a rough Tuesday on Wall Street for United woke up the executive team. Or the communications professionals started winning the internal messaging war. Whatever the sequence or combination, someone at United wrote an infinitely better response for the CEO today, declaring the incident “truly horrific,” expressing “deepest apologies,” and saying “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”

More importantly for any attempt to heal the company’s reputation, the CEO pledged to “make it right” and review all the applicable policies and procedures involved in the sequence of events.

Outstanding.

Except it was more than a day and several news cycles too late, after large swaths of the flying public saw the news, saw United’s initial responses, and have already soured on the United brand. Instead of doing the right thing on day one, United will have to win back the customers it lost with its first 24 hours of bumbling. That’s going to cost them.

What happens to United is anyone’s guess. But, learning from their experience provides a good place to start for leaders and communications professionals finding themselves in a similarly unenviable crisis in the future:

  • Show empathy
  • Focus on the customer
  • Take responsibility

Simple rules to avoid a lot of trouble in this era of fast-moving modern media.

Originally published on my LinkedIn page.

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