American Airlines got right what United got wrong

American Airlines recently had it’s own viral video problem. Nothing on the scale of United dragging a bleeding man off a plane, but still atrocious. For American, we can all stipulate that when a flight attendant is hollering at a customer, saying “come on, hit me!” after said flight attendant allegedly pulled a stroller violently from a mother holding a baby then things have probably gone to a place that makes crisis communications professionals — and most of humanity — cringe. Yet, there is something to learn from how American handled a tough situation well.

Understanding what United did wrong in its now famous PR fumble for the ages is key to understanding what went right for American:

  1. United justified itself with rules rather than responding with empathy
  2. United focused on itself, not the customer, in the CEO’s first statement
  3. United blamed the victim in an email to employees rather than be accountable

What United should have done was:

  1. Show empathy
  2. Focus on the customer
  3. Take responsibility

Perhaps no surprise then that American did in their response exactly what United should have done. Here’s the American statement, worth quoting in full:

We have seen the video and have already started an investigation to obtain the facts. What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident. We are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care. After electing to take another flight, we are taking special care of her and her family and upgrading them to first class for the remainder of their international trip.

The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.

American showed empathy

They acknowledged up front they had “seen the video” and “started an investigation,” but importantly didn’t wait to go further. The next sentence of the statement established empathy further — and focus on the customer — by declaring what they saw didn’t reflect their values or the way they expect customers to be treated. In short, the statement immediately aligned with the lay public’s reaction: this is wrong and something needs to be done about it.

Note, American threaded the needle by giving themselves some wiggle room in referring to what they saw in the video that was in the news, while still investigating the facts. That placates the lawyers who rightly will want to know if there are additional facts (and video) that mitigate or change the situation. Not likely in this incident, but an important consideration in managing legal risk in crisis communications, while also showing empathy and regret that the customer obviously had a bad experience.

American focused on the customer

Building on the empathy already established at the start of the statement, American responded directly to the customer saying they were “deeply sorry,” while notably declaring they had given her a first class upgrade for the remainder of the trip and were “taking special care of her and her family.” That statement assures the troubled viewer of the video that American is making things right.

Significantly, the sentence preceding the description of what American was doing to remedy things for their customer said “[w]e are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care.” [emphasis added]. That’s a subtle yet powerful statement of empathy and focus on the customer. A passenger is getting in a metal tube to be transported by a trained crew roughly 30,000 feet in the air to another part of the world. Yes, any customer is likely to feel that they’re “in your care,” not just part of a transaction. Acknowledging that fact was wise and effective.

American took accountability

From the start to the end of the statement American owned what was visible to any video viewer: a customer experience had gone south, with an employee of the company making a shockingly bad representation of the organization. As such, that employee rightly went under the bus: “removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.” All the more laudable on American’s part because they’ll inevitably have to fight the employee’s union, which already blamed the airline and passengers.

American’s timely public statement coincided with the airline visibly taking accountability on Twitter (where United notably flubbed), taking ownership in 140 characters, including linking to their statement:

Make that taking complete accountability:

The news media coverage of this incident with American, with its still troubling video, was nothing of what United endured. American protected its image in part by getting out quickly with an acceptable response before the media storm grew. That’s a stark contrast to United’s need for repeated statements over several days.

That speed to response allowed the company’s statement to be unattributed on its website and attributed to spokesperson Leslie Scott in direct media inquires. That’s a subtle yet huge communications win in protecting American’s reputation. You only want to use a senior executive’s voice, especially the CEO, when absolutely necessary in crisis, because the reputational risks escalate exponentially if those statements and/or interviews don’t accomplish the desired mission.

Example: I was VP of Corporate Communications at Premera Blue Cross when it announced a significant cyberattack in 2015. We knew the announcement would receive intense media attention nationally and locally, especially coming on the heels of another such announcement by Anthem Blue Cross just weeks prior. We, with input from some great outside advisers, deliberately chose to put me out front for the flurry of expected initial media inquires, even though the (still) CEO is a great communicator.

Thus, we still used an executive spokesperson for a non-stop stretch of media interviews over a couple days, but held the CEO in reserve. He taped a public video statement, was quoted in our press release, and announced the news internally, but did no live media interviews on the topic. We also owned the issue up front, apologized, and provided an immediate solution for customers. The result: the worst of the media storm was largely over in a couple news cycles, with no CEO interviews needed.

That’s exactly what American accomplished, sparring senior leadership from having to take on the risk of tough media interviews in a crisis, which is a credit to the American Airlines team. Don’t think that’s important? Ask Oscar Munoz at United.

In sum, an exceptional performance by the American Airlines team to respond quickly and effectively, mitigating the initial PR problem and protecting the company and the brand from imminent additional damage. While it’s easy to pick on United’s mistakes, it’s more instructive to have a positive case study from an industry peer so readily at hand for contrast.

Originally published at my LinkedIn page.

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