Leadership

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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Several conversations with colleagues, mentors and the AHA Creative Strategies team recently inspired me to take on an interesting campaign. We’re calling it The AHA 100 Cups of Coffee Campaign. In a nutshell, I am aiming to meet 100 different individuals for a cup of coffee (or tea – we’re not sticklers for that detail) from July 1, 2016 to July 1, 2017.

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dreamstime_xs_49756552I am a student of human behavior. I people watch wherever I am – in meetings, at coffee shops, in airports, on the ferry, in waiting rooms and in reception areas. I am always interested in how people act in public, when they think no one is watching. It is always interesting to see who is considerate and who isn’t. And I’m not talking about being a doormat here. Polite, considerate and courteous people can – and do – communicate when they are unhappy with something or are upset with someone’s actions. We just do it in a way that helps to manage the process in a more positive manner.

Being polite, considerate and courteous is second nature to me. I was taught to say please and thank you and to take other peoples’ feelings into consideration. My parents were sticklers for this. And it has served me well in both my personal and professional lives. It helps to build positive relationships with clients, partners, journalists and, of course, my fabulous AHA colleagues. I know that I have been given opportunities, had introductions made for me, and had doors opened because of these interpersonal skills.

I recently had two very different experiences that highlight the power of this. The first one was with a former client who asked for a proposal for a proactive marketing communications campaign from us. We sent over the proposal and he e-mailed back thanking me for it and saying he had a couple of urgent matters on his plate and would get back to me in a few days. A few days went by and he e-mailed again saying: “I haven’t forgotten about you; it’s just a bit hairy here right now. I promise I will get back to you by the end of the week about your proposal.” He was considerate and made the effort to reach out and acknowledge that we had a proposal in with him and that he hadn’t had a chance to review it yet. This is the type of client we want to work for – someone who sees us as partners and treats us with respect.

The other experience was completely the opposite. I was asked to sit on the board of a high-profile, national organization as co-communications director. This is a volunteer board and the organization wants to completely rebrand itself in 2016. That meant a huge amount of work on my part. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to manage the amount of time and effort that it would take and asked a few questions about it. I had to follow up several times and, eventually, a phone call was set up with three other board members. We spoke for about an hour. I thanked them for their time and told them I would get back to them within 48 hours about whether I felt I could fulfil the demands of this role. Within 24 hours, I knew that, as much as it would have been an interesting experience, it was too much to take on with everything that we have going on here at AHA. I sent out an e-mail thanking the chair and the board members for considering me, but that I had to decline because I didn’t feel that I could make the type of time commitment that was necessary. I wished them well but heard nothing back from anyone – no response at all. Thinking that perhaps my e-mail had gone into their junk folders, I resent. That was three months ago and I still haven’t received a response.

Interestingly enough, I had a colleague ask me if I could recommend someone for a pretty lucrative contract that was right up the alley of one of the board members I had e-mailed. Given that client service and communication was a key element of this project and I had seen firsthand that he wasn’t great at that – he couldn’t even be bothered to respond to my e-mail – I didn’t feel comfortable recommending him for the job. It’s funny how that works.

Please, thank you, if you have time, I really appreciate this… There are so many phrases that make life easier. It sounds so small, but basic courtesy is a valuable skill. I know that being polite, considerate and courteous has positively affected my career and my personal life. And it’s really not hard to do. Take the time today to be considerate and courteous to the people you work with and to the people you share your life with. I promise you, it’s worth the effort.

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charlotteempeycrop2We are beyond thrilled to announce that media icon (and all-around awesome human being) Charlotte Empey has agreed to take on the role of AHA’s Toronto Bureau Chief.

AHA partner, Ruth Atherley, and Charlotte have known each other and worked together for many, many years. Their friendship and professional relationship goes back to the days when Charlotte founded and was Editor-in-Chief of Modern Woman magazine and Ruth was a contributing writer for her. Charlotte went on to have senior and leadership roles at many of Canada’s national publications – including as Editor-in-Chief for Metro English Canada (daily) newspapers and Canadian Living magazine.

In this partnership role, Charlotte will work with the AHA team to expand the brand journalism and branded content services in Toronto, Vancouver and across the country.

With shrinking newsrooms, organizations are challenged in getting their stories told via media coverage. Understanding how widespread the changes in traditional media are, as well as the power of social networks, online content and search engine optimization (SEO), the AHA team realized years ago how important it is for brands to tell their own stories.

In order to meet a growing client need in this area, the AHA team has put a strong focus on creating engaging, informative, well-written and professionally-produced branded content and brand journalism campaigns for our clients. This approach allows the brand story to be effectively and authentically shared with organizations’ stakeholders, communities and target markets in a way that engages the audience.

For our purposes, branded content speaks more specifically to projects or individual items to be developed – such as web content, one-off articles, videos or podcasts – and brand journalism is focused on a longer-term campaign that would include weeks, months or even years of creating ongoing, interesting, informative content on a regular basis that engages your target market or stakeholder groups.

Please click to see case studies.

AHA Branded Content/Brand Journalism Services

Our branded content/brand journalism services include, but are not limited to:

  • Writing and editing
  • Identification of compelling story angles relevant to an organization/project
  • Defining the client’s brand story
  • Interviews with subject matter experts, senior team and staff members, board of directors and other individuals, when necessary
  • Research of industry/global trends, identifying key elements relevant to the subject matter
  • Development of brand journalism campaigns
  • Editorial content schedules for ongoing series
  • Editorial content schedules for social media
  • Editorial style writing of articles for websites, blogs, e-newsletters and other online publications
  • Video segments and series (sometimes accompanied by articles)
  • Photos
  • Photo essays
  • Social media content
  • Social media series
  • Promotion of branded content on social networking sites
  • Client bylined articles for submission to traditional media (consumer and trade)
  • Op-ed pieces (bylined to client)

See the news release on this announcement here.

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AHA CEO Ruth Atherley spoke at TEDx BCIT on January 24, 2015. Ruth identified that in this 24/7 connected world, doing the right thing all the time is much easier and more effective than having to face the destruction of your reputation and potentially your business.

Here is her presentation.

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