Finding the Little Dipper Among Sea of Stars: How a Crisis Can Uncover Deeper Issues

Lessons from United Airlines

By Rosabel Tao and Jason Middleton at Cunningham Collective

It’s clear that United Airlines’ handling of its crisis last week has been a first class PR failure. It’s looked more like a slow-motion pileup on the highway -- one car after another, careening into the previous one, with only diminishing damage with each collision.

From the CEO’s tone-deaf first response, to a new, only somewhat unrelated removal of paying passengers — newlyweds, no less! — United is providing a use case of how not to handle a crisis.

On the surface, there’s a viral video of a passenger being forcibly removed from his seat -- and the plane — that not only has him screaming, but other passengers horrified as they witness what resembles the removal of a violent protester during a riot.

Then there was the corporate-babble initial response from the company that not only sounded insincere, but also poisoned the well for all subsequent announcements. And it’s still going on. Yesterday, CEO Oscar Munoz continued his apology tour on the earnings call.

We previously talked about how companies bungle their crisis response, why that first statement is so important and what a “good” statement is.

[Click HERE for the first installment on how to handle a public relations crisis: The importance of a company’s first public statement or response.]

In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, the primary focus is on understanding what happened and why. As the smoke begins to clear during crisis response, a company turns its attention to the underlying reasons of how it happened.

The how of anything can be a difficult truth to uncover, but it is critical for that company, moving forward, to begin repairing relationships with stakeholders, especially customers.

Often, one of the causes of how points to the corporate culture. Those cultural cracks are shown in stark relief during a crisis.

Any company can be exposed to an unexpected crisis. That said, it is possible to weather a crisis more gracefully if it has already built a well of goodwill with its stakeholders, including such as customers, partners, employees and even government regulators.

This value of goodwill should not be overlooked. If a company has a better, more positive reputation in the first place, it’s more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt when a negative issue emerges.

Businesses need to invest in building goodwill continually – not just one-offs – by demonstrating positive commitment to customers and the communities in which they operate. This helps build trust, credibility and loyalty – which will help companies ride out the tough times.

In fairness to United, it’s a challenge to build goodwill within the airline industry. Major factors are not in their control — things like weather, long security lines at airports and copious regulations.

That said, what they can control is their customer-facing identity. United had problems before this situation. According to study by J.D. Power, it scored last in passenger satisfaction amongst the traditional airlines, so it’s no surprise how harshly it’s been judged.

Rosabel Tao, a principal at Cunningham Collective, has more than 25 years of corporate communications experience. She knows first-hand about the importance of a well-crafted, timely first response. She has also helped guide a major financial brand into newer, more productive waters when it comes to building a customer-satisfaction culture.

Here’s an excerpt from a question-and-answer session. In addition to these answers, please listen to our podcast to hear more about how companies find themselves in the middle of a crisis.

Jason: We’ve had some real PR nightmares so far in 2017. We’ve had Uber, Nivea, Pepsi, Sean Spicer and now United. I think everyone has seen that video from the United flight by now. So let’s take that one as an example for a PR nightmare that’s playing out in the public. Why do you think United reacted the way they did?

Rosabel: Crisis communications situations are so complex. There are a thousand factors that can go into them. I can’t really speak to why they reacted why they did, but we do know is that it took them a long time to come out with that first statement.

And that first statement is so important in every crisis situation, because every communication after that is filtered through that first one. So, it’s super important to get that first one right.

J: OK, let’s drill into United’s first statement. It did miss the mark. It came across as uncaring or unemotional – like it was no big deal. Doesn’t that approach just leave people cold?

R: Yes, in fact I think that’s a big crisis-management “don’t.” Some crisis experts consider Exxon-Mobile as being the standard bearer for a bad crisis response, but now they’re saying United has topped Exxon in that category.

They actually ended up having two crises. A primary one and a secondary crisis that stemmed from the fact their response was so late, and so very much off the mark.

Back in the days of Exxon-Mobil’s crisis, we didn’t have social media, so things didn’t quite zip around as fast as they do today. It took United a day and a half to respond. During that day and a half, that video has been seen at least 210 million times.

When there is a long delay in releasing the first statement, it gives the public ample opportunity to fill in the void with all manner of recrimination, real or not, fair or not.

Plus, it is really hard to get over the visuals of what happened. It was so disturbing. None of us can “un-see” what we saw. Without a compelling, dynamic response, United will be recovering from this crisis for years.

The first moments after something breaks, mass chaos can ensue. Companies are spending their first few moments trying to understand what exactly happened, and why. What preceded the event for that to happen? What was the cause? Was the passenger a suspected terrorist? Was he threatening the staff?

J: So you're in a war room, how do those talk points happen for responding to the public during this?

R: The first thing that happens after you assess the situation and try to understand what's going on. In some ways, I think of it as trying to identify the litter dipper in a sea of stars. Once you see the dipper, you can identify the North Star and then you will understand what you need to do. That’s why having a crisis preparedness in plan helps, it’ll get you to the North Star more quickly.

J: Let’s continue about the ‘war room.’ Let’s say you have input from key decision makers. Now it seems as if it’s almost a “discovery” phase as the company tries to nail down the “what” and the ”why” of the situation.

Does anything else come out of that discovery phase?

R: In the very first moments of a crisis you’re really focusing on what happened and why it happened – what were the events leading up to what went down.

Then, as the smoke begins clearing, you’re immediately turning your attention to “how did this happen?” Almost always in these situations it’s not the actions of one or two rogue employees, that’s very rarely the case.

Usually it’s a larger, systemic issue going on in the company that allows something like this to happen.

In United’s case, the front-line employees probably did not feel like they had enough leeway to really resolve the situation above and beyond the playbook that they were given.

I think that’s also very common. Companies are trying to exert so much control that could happen that it backfires on them. Employees aren’t empowered enough to do the right thing for customers in the moment it happens. When a problem occurs, there is not enough time to go through a complicated or time-consuming approval process.

J: That’s a fine line for a company, because if they don’t have control they’re exposed to risk. If they’re too tightly controlled, then the point-of-contact with a customer can go off the rails.

You mentioned earlier systemic problems that can be exposed during a crisis.

R: It’s a combination of two things – systems or processes and company culture.

J: So it’s a cultural issue that may have been calcified over time?

R: Right. In this particular case, my conjecture is that United’s front-line employees didn’t feel like they had an opportunity to really paint outside the lines. In other words, to really try and resolve the customer situation in that moment above and beyond what’s in their rulebook.

J: Changing even part of a corporate culture can be difficult though…

R:  True. Cultural change is extremely hard, but it can be done if it starts from the top and the company is committed to change at all levels. Authenticity is key. People know when they’re just getting lip service from a company.

For a real-life example of changing corporate culture after a corporate crisis, please check out the podcast within this post.

Also, please let us know your thoughts, or share a case study, in the comments section below.