Issues and Crisis

By Ruth Atherley

Unless you have been living under a rock, you probably know about the challenges that United Airlines has experienced recently. While one incident garnered the most news coverage and criticism on social media, several situations that could have been avoided, had they been handled differently, have come up and have shown the ugly underside of the culture of the organization. And it has cost them dearly – financially (their stock has dropped in the hundreds of millions) and with the long-term damage to their brand.

The biggest incident, with a 69-year-old doctor being physically assaulted and dragged off the plane, didn’t need to happen. In a nutshell, United had overbooked a flight and four passengers who were on the flight were informed that they had been bumped – to accommodate crew who needed to get to the destination airport to get onto another flight for work. Three accommodated and one said he wasn’t going to deplane. Since he refused, they called in the Chicago Department of Aviation Security Officers and they physically assaulted him and dragged him off the flight.

Let’s just replay it in a way that would have had a different outcome.

BEFORE passengers board the flight, the airline offers the most they can for four people to give up their seats. They have the captain request this over the loudspeaker, explaining how important it is. If this doesn’t work, they book their crew on another flight (even if they have to pay for seats on another airline or use a private plane to get them there).

There is some chatter that passengers were already on board before United realized that they needed the four seats. At that point, it should have been too late. Another way for the crew to get to their destination should have been worked out.

At the heart of this, there appears to be a culture of not caring about the customer (in this case, the passenger). Unfortunately, this is something that’s more typical than not these days. Here at AHA, we do a great deal of issues communication. I am always interested when something like the United issue plays out. When it does, I do a deep dive to understand what happened and what could have been done differently. Having said that, we are always cautious about criticizing how communications are handled in these situations, because unless you were in the room when these decisions were made, you really don’t know the whole story.

From a great deal of first-hand experience and extensive research, I can tell you that at the heart of so many issues like the one United is experiencing, there is a moment when someone in the company could have stepped up and done the right thing – but didn’t. And that choice can cost the organization a great deal. Many of these “moments” (that lead to a big issue) just needed an employee (whether in leadership or not) who could have de-escalated the situation rather than fuel it. A staff member could have said: “No, we need to get this right.”

What United needed at that moment was leadership from someone who cared about the passengers and who could see the bigger picture. Someone who could have approached the captain of the flight with the problem and a solution.

A situation, such as the United issue, doesn’t happen in a vacuum. From the hundreds of horror stories about United being shared online, there does appear to be a toxic culture at the airline. I have had personal experience in being treated poorly by United – see three blog posts: one, two and three). Typically what that means is that there is a problem at the senior level – and that permeates an entire organization and its culture. That is a leadership issue and a communications problem. And when you have a nasty culture, eventually it is going to play out in an issue, one way or another.

The fact is, someone on the United team who was in a position of power, influence or even respect, on that plane, could have had stepped forward and done the right thing and worked to defuse the situation instead of calling in the security officers. The key here is that the person who stepped up would have had to have felt empowered to do this. And given the outcome, you have to think that they didn’t.

Think about it. By upping the dollar amount to get someone to give up their seat – for a few thousand dollars – they could have found four people who would have been happy to get off the plane.

I did a TEDx talk a while ago about how doing the right thing is often much less costly. This continues to be true.

And United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, didn’t do the company or its brand any favours when his first statement after the incident didn’t acknowledge the injuries of the passenger or the violent way the situation was handled. In fact, it appeared, from a leaked internal e-mail, that he was applauding how it was handled and was blaming the victim.

United needed some strategic public relations immediately after this incident. It’s just as important to note that while addressing this incident with concern, compassion and showing how it would never happen again was crucial – United is dealing with a much bigger issue in their organizational culture. This isn’t a one-off situation with them. While I expect that every airline has people who have had a bad experience, United is known for its poor customer service and lack of care and consideration for its passengers. This problem goes much deeper with United and, from Munoz’s initial reaction and the internal memo he put out, this attitude comes from the top.

I saw an interesting blog post on Facebook the other day that told a very different story about Alaska Airlines and how they handled a delay situation. It’s worth a read – maybe someone should e-mail the link to Munoz.

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Della Smith, my friend/colleague/mentor, is running a great blog series called Dining with Della. Each week, she profiles someone and asks them three key questions about communications – the answers are often about a key moment in the person’s personal or professional life, they are incredibly honest, and there is always an important takeaway. This series is worth reading. The most recent piece had a response that spoke about the importance of value in structure, and it got me thinking about structure and its role in strategic communications. Here at AHA, we do a fair amount of work regarding sensitive subject matter. And while I think structure is important in all of the work that we do, it is exceptionally so when the subject matter is sensitive or when you are dealing with an issue or a crisis.

On several initiatives, we worked with a diverse range of stakeholders – they included family members and/or victims, community groups and advocates, justice system organizations and professionals, local, national and international governments and, of course, the public. It was crucial to create structures – frameworks for how we would communicate with the stakeholder groups. When working on complex issues, there are so many interrelated elements that need to be arranged in a manner that allows for transparent communication to all and yet acknowledges and respects the needs, expectations and culture of the individuals and specific groups. It’s not an easy feat – and it’s almost impossible to do without structure.

While each project is unique, there is an approach that we use that helps to define, not just what needs to be done – but also why, how and when. We typically start off with a statement of purpose, which defines what we want to achieve throughout the process. Our statement of purpose isn’t just about the end results; it focuses on what we want to accomplish as we move through the process.

We clearly – and candidly (but always respectfully) – identify the current situation and review what works, what is no longer useful or effective, and what needs to be changed. This includes undertaking a SWOT analysis – strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. As a part of this, we do a PEST analysis, listing out the political, economic, social and technological factors that could affect our work – negatively or positively. We also do a deep dive into each stakeholder group so that we can understand their true needs. We find out who they are – not just within the context of the initiative, but overall. What are they interested in – what do they want to hear from us and why? What don’t they want to hear from us and what does that tell us? Where do they get their information? (Online? In person? Via group communication or in a more individual manner?) What is their communication style? And – especially when the subject matter is sensitive – we (as communications people) also have to think about how the leadership of the organization wants to communicate and how we can bring different elements or philosophies together so that everyone feels respected, valued and understood.

Once we have all of this information, then we are able to develop a strategic communications framework that provides a road map to move forward. This supports the overall strategy and the tactical day-to-day activities.

Developing a structure takes effort, but it provides huge benefit throughout the project.

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dreamstime_xs_54635780The AHA team has earned a strong reputation for strategic communications surrounding sensitive subject matter. Quite often, this means working with a client during an issue or crisis – but not always. Many organizations deal with sensitive subject matter on a daily basis and taking a “typical” issue or crisis communication approach isn’t necessarily the right way to go when this is the case. The widespread use of social media and a 24/7 news cycle has made this more complex – and often complicated. Understanding this is only the start of being effective and in ensuring that stakeholder groups (including advocacy groups, critics, media, the public, sometimes government, and others) feel that they are being kept informed in an authentic and transparent manner.

The thing is, when sensitive subject matter is involved, so are emotions. And, quite often, it can be easy to forget that. Understanding that stakeholders may react with anger, frustration or distrust should always be front and centre when developing positioning and messages. Taking a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a person who is highly critical or mistrustful or who has felt disenfranchised or ignored is crucial. And it’s not easy to do this when there are deadlines, budgets and demands placed on the organization’s staff.

When working with sensitive subject matter on a daily basis, often staff will use humour or perhaps remove themselves emotionally in order to deal with the situation. That is a pretty human thing to do, but it can be misinterpreted and misunderstood – and that can easily turn into an issue on social media.

Monitoring social media is a key part of any effective communications strategy – and it is even more important when dealing with sensitive subject matter. Understanding what is being said and shared on social media provides insight into how specific stakeholders might be feeling, it can identify where there has been a misunderstanding or miscommunication, and it provides the organization with an opportunity – in a respectful and inclusive manner – to reach out and correct any factual errors, to address any mistakes or missteps, and to participate in the conversation.

One of the key elements of our success in working with clients who deal with sensitive subject matter on a regular basis is to fully understand the topic – and the stakeholder groups. Often, taking the time to truly listen to a critic (a negative response or someone who is mistrustful) provides insight into what needs to be done as a communicator in order to help shift perception. Sometimes that means explaining what was done wrong and how it is going to be made right.

Social media has put additional (and intense) pressure on those who work in areas of sensitive subject matter – especially high profile or controversial initiatives. Being proactive in sharing information, responding respectfully and inclusively to critics or naysayers, and ensuring that you fully understand the perspective of all stakeholders – not just the ones who support or agree with the organization – is crucial. And social media provides the ability to do this in a timely and public manner.

We have worked with many organizations where the senior team had initially been concerned about social media and what could happen. After gaining a deeper understanding of the opportunities as well as the risks of social, we could see a shift in their thinking regarding the value of engaging online.

While effectively managing sensitive subject matter online takes time, effort and resources, it can also be an incredibly valuable communications tool that allows an organization to authentically, transparently and effectively engage with both supportive and critical stakeholders.

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