United’s calamitous month was merely a high-profile culmination of years of operational mistakes and PR mismanagement. Happily though, it does make for a good rapid-fire study on what NOT to do with your crisis response communications.
Public Relations communications, when used correctly and appropriately, does nothing other than to amplify an organization’s messaging to media and to the market. The ‘dark art of spin’ should only ever become a factor when things go terribly wrong, and even then it should be used conservatively, sparingly and with a high level of tacit judgement.
If the term ‘public relations’ summons visions of an oil executive waving his arms at a media scrum and protesting hopelessly that his company’s burst pipeline wasn’t responsible for destroying the lives of thousands, you’re not alone. This dirty side of public relations is so closely associated with the term that we wonder why on earth we would need any sort of PR when we conduct our business in only the most well-considered manner; PR, then, is the muddy arcane cult of mistruths and the massaging of facts to achieve outcomes that we honestly do not deserve.
In reality however, public relations is not any of these things. It simply defines the way in which we manage our messaging to the world. It is not only something to be used by businesses or government departments; it is something we use all the time in our personal lives, from the images and updates we post on our Facebook pages to the things we allow friends to write about us on their family blogs. It is not a corporate bag of tricks designed to con people into buying things from our employer; it is a principal set of skills which allows us to be represented to the world properly, whether we are a business or a person. This is most important during times of crisis.
United Airlines communications
In the case of United, a badly executed PR response served to amplify a series of disastrous operational failings “on the ground” (no pun intended). When United staff handled the situation badly, and its departments used questionable logic and judgement and did not interact or function correctly, this situation on the ground quickly goes up the chain to become a highly visible corporate hot potato – which is exactly what happens these days thanks to social media. Toxic wildfire now spreads through 4G.
So in the case of United, the company’s PR response was ill-judged and therefore amplified the company’s failings (again to reiterate- all PR does is amplify messages; it has no other purpose). Messaging can be good or bad, and can be blown out of all proportion, to the positive or detrimental effect. United’s CEO made things worse, firstly by not issuing an immediate response, then by sending out what international media viewed as a “non-apology”, and then finally, three days later, issuing an actual apology.
What’s unusual about the United case study is that on paper, the executive PR response could have been considered to be reasonably appropriate. When Vivaldi Integrated Public Relations issues holding statements on behalf of clients, we will work immediately to gather the facts and prepare a statement with true and consistent messaging. Often these types of unpredictable situations can happen in the middle of the night or during holiday periods, but we place a lot of importance on gathering the correct information. The holding statement is exactly that – a notice to the press that you are aware something has happened and that you are investigating it (and also complying with the investigation of any outside agency or bureau, if appropriate).
United’ s CEO got a solid public hiding for not issuing an immediate apology, but if he had done so would have admitted culpability whilst the investigation was ongoing – the last thing you would want to do in a crisis situation, especially one as public as this. He was also panned for siding with staff instead of the customer, which rallied some support among twitter users as to his backing of his own employees. Any staff member who has been bruised by a tough customer and who felt they had no support from the company’s management will attest to this being an admirable trait. However …. United has suffered through months of disparaging, vitriolic comments online from unhappy customers, unhappy airline union members, unhappy press, unhappy … well, everyone. This in itself reveals the single most important take-away from this case study. What is key in crisis communications handling is that the company issuing any sort of statement must be perceived to be in possession of a good reputation hitherto, and therefore is generally held in public opinion as being credible when responding to any sort of crisis. This is exactly why having a great PR partner in place can help you navigate through any sort of public criticism, due to months or years of hard work invested nurturing media relationships.
So, in times of crisis, you at least have a chance to put together a quick, elegant and believable crisis response, and by sending it to media partners who actually like you already, you have the best possible chance of achieving a successful post-crisis outcome.