issues and crisis communications

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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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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The work we do here at AHA Creative Strategies often seems to come in groups. Right now, we are working with several clients on issues communication and this comes right on the heels of writing quite a few issues and crisis communication plans for other clients.

It’s important to understand that an issue is different from a crisis. An issue is one that keeps you up at night worrying about it – inappropriate behaviour by an employee or senior executive, the unexpected or unexplained removal of a CEO or president, plant closure and employee layoffs, a strike vote by your union, a change in legislation that will affect how your organization does business, etc. Issues are often – but not always – played out in the media (both traditional and social media). An issue threatens your brand, image and organization’s reputation.

A crisis is immediate and there is more at stake than just your reputation (although how you handle a crisis and take care of those affected by it could impact your reputation). A crisis threatens the survival of your organization. It can be a natural disaster (earthquake, flood, tsunami, hurricane) or it can be created by humans – an accident or act of violence at the workplace, mine collapse, hostage situation, airline crash, cruise ship sinking, etc.

In speaking with our clients – from the large multinational organizations that we work with, to our entrepreneurial clients – we always recommend putting an issue and crisis plan in place. When something happens, having a plan that has a complete checklist that provides you with a step-by-step way to move forward is crucial. During an issue or a crisis, your focus must be on managing the situation and ensuring that you are clearly, authentically and transparently communicating with your stakeholder groups – especially those affected.

With clients, we often present a workshop that provides the opportunity to role-play situations specific to their industry or geographic location, so that the key people who would be involved in helping to manage an issue or crisis get a sense of what would be expected of them at that time. It is of huge value to the individuals who participate and it provides them with context so that when we write an issue and crisis communication plan, they can provide input and feedback.

Making sure that your organization – no matter how small – has a plan is important. Thinking about the worst-case scenarios and developing an issue and crisis communication plan is a business asset. You don’t want to find yourself dealing with a big problem and not knowing what your next step should be.

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CommentWe do both positive, proactive PR and issues and crisis communication here at AHA. And for these two very different sides of communication, there are many similarities in how we approach them.

One key element for both proactive PR and issues and crisis communication is to pay close attention to the response that is created from the announcement, information or campaign.

Traditional media coverage often provides the opportunity for the community to weigh in, to provide comments online and, sometimes, to vote on a survey. And, of course, Facebook and Twitter provide a great deal of insight into how people are feeling. For an issue or crisis, critical information can be found in the comments.

It is also important to watch when the news being shared is positive. Sometimes, when it comes to comments, no news is good news – but if you have just launched a product or service to consumers and there is no “buzz” about it in the comments or on social media, there should be a concern that no one but you cares.

For both positive news and issues and crisis response, looking at the comments lets you understand the needs and expectations of the public. You may have to wade through a few haters (those people who comment on anything and everything and always have something negative to say), but it’s worth your time. You can get insights that you couldn’t have received in real time before news became more interactive with social media.

Don’t just read the coverage; read the comments. Follow the social media updates and see how they are being shared. There is a wealth of information out there and it’s all available to you.

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This blog post isn’t about what to do should your organization be faced with an issue or a crisis. It is about what you can do today, proactively, even if there isn’t the slightest evidence that there might be a challenge in your future. (A word of warning: A small mistake by someone in your organization could get a lot of interest online and turn into a huge crisis. Don’t think a crisis would never happen to you. It can. And at some point, it likely will.)

Please visit our blog to read the rest of the post.

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