• Apr 12, 2017
  • Insights

United we fail: When CEOs shoot themselves in the mouth

Written by Geoff Norquay. Published by iPolitics.

United Airlines impaled itself this week on the rusty chainsaw of public opinion and social media outrage over a disturbing incident in Chicago.

Last Sunday evening’s United flight 3411 to Louisville needed to move four company employees to Louisville for subsequent flights. No passengers volunteered to make room by leaving the aircraft for the compensation United offered: USD $800 in travel vouchers.

With no volunteers, United moved to a lottery. Three passengers left without incident. Dr. David Dao, a 69-year-old pulmonary physician, refused to leave the plane, saying he needed to see patients the next day.

He was then forcibly dragged off the plane by aviation security, shouting and bleeding from the mouth. The videos are raw and disturbing.

It’s not easy to list all the mistakes made by United’s CEO Oscar Munoz in responding to this situation. First, he publicly apologized for the overbooking situation — but weakly — and expressed no concern for the injured doctor. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

He then dug himself in deeper by making the biggest mistake possible in crisis communications: He blamed the victim, telling his employees in an email that the passenger was “disruptive and belligerent,” had “defied” security officers and had raised his voice. He spoke of employees having “followed established procedures” and said he stood behind them “emphatically.”

The social media response was incandescently negative. Within 24 hours, the stock markets had rendered a verdict on Munoz’ ham-fisted and tone-deaf comments, knocking nearly $1.4 billion off United’s market value (a partial recovery followed, leaving the stock down by $600 million). Still to come are the lawsuits against the airline and the security goons, and the multi-million dollar settlements.

Chastened by the public firestorm and the market response, Munoz did better on Tuesday (finally, late in the day), calling the confrontation “truly horrific”, saying that “no one should ever be treated this way” and promising to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again. I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.” In full damage control this morning on ABC, he said he felt “shame” when he saw the videos.He finally found the sweet spot — more than 24 hours late and on the third attempt. In fact, none of this needed to happen, because the rules of the road for crisis communications in major corporations have been well known for some time:

  • In advance, assemble a team of communications experts around the CEO with the judgment and independence to recognize a real crisis, and genuine threats to brand and reputation, when they see them.
  • In today’s frenzied social media environment, be aware that no matter how great you think your company is, an isolated occurrence captured on a cellphone can instantaneously paint you and your employees as incompetent, unfeeling, self-serving, stupid, or all of the above. Handle this wrong and the situation will only get worse.
  • Never double down with arguments like, “We followed standard industry practice for such situations,” when that practice is seen by millions in the global commons as odious and unacceptable. This isn’t a fight you can win.
  • Remember that speed really matters in crisis communications. A quick and comprehensive response can cauterize a situation before it has a chance to gather momentum and “go supernova.” Once that happens you will always be playing catch-up, and it will be much harder to recover.
  • Once you recognize you are in serious trouble, understand that it’s incredibly hard to screw up an abject public apology. Take responsibility, make amends to the offended individual or group, if possible, and honestly commit to fix the issue, practice or failing that gave offence.
  • When making that apology, at all costs avoid this odious phrase: “If anyone was offended …” The fact that you are making an apology means you have already offended thousands of people, if not millions. Being equivocal only makes those people angrier. Express genuine contrition; it’s the only approach that works.
  • Never forget that your shareholders are watching your company’s conduct in a crisis, and that a crash in the stock price tends to ruin their day. If you mess it up, they’ll be the ones at your next AGM carrying pitchforks.
  • And finally, if your company doesn’t have employees capable of doing all of this in a crisis, you’d better get some outside professional help — fast.

There’s nothing particularly magical about these principles; they’re common sense. But they are also the distillation of lessons learned from 20 years of failure and success in crisis communications.

Think of BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s fumbling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, or the swiftly fired CEO of the MM&A railroad musing that he hoped he wouldn’t “get lynched” when he finally showed up in Lac Megantic two full weeks after a runaway train blew up the town and killed 47 people.

On the positive side, think of the exemplary response by Maple Leaf Foods to the deadly 2008 listeriosis outbreak. Just last week, Pepsi acted quickly when one of its ads touched raw nerves among Black Lives Matter activists and the African-American civil rights movement.

Corporate leaders would be wise to give these examples some thought and make sure they have a plan for their next YouTube crisis.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all iPolitics columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of iPolitics.