PR Crisis at 20,000 Feet

LexisNexis Newsdesk, Media Intelligence, LexisNexis BIS

There is hardly anyone in the educated and net-savvy world today, who doesn't know about the United Airlines' recent incidence. The international carrier learnt it the hard way that PR management is of utmost importance today – whether you are on the ground or flying 20, 000 feet above. Crisis management is a sort of PR skill where companies take lessons for life through bad examples or experiences. The uncanny, forcible removal of a passenger from one of its overbooked flights has surely turned out to be a nightmare for the United Airlines.

Apology Not Accepted

These days, news, specially the negative one, travels faster than fire. The PR lessons are important in the wake of high awareness and have become furious after this taped incident of the United flight. PR Daily contributor Hinda Mitchell, head of Inspire PR Group, recently gave an analysis of CEO Oscar Munoz's reaction to the incident, focusing on both - the timing and content of his first couple of statements - one to the public and another to United employees.

In a crisis, a PR team has two weapons: speed and resolve. The fact that Munoz waited for a day to say anything is the first warning sign. A controversy requires immediate action. People these days follow online news and hence can get hang of it within few hours of the incidence happening. It becomes a hot topic between people on social media. Waiting for a day to respond equals to losing the control of the entire story; the same thing happened in United's case.

By the time the PR responses were out, their content and tone couldn't do anything to cool down the heat of criticism. The public statement by Munoz opened by describing the event as upsetting to the airline's personnel. As noted by Mitchell, public is not interested in listening to the fact that the company in concern is sorry for what happened. 'Is it all about themselves? What about the passenger who was actually tortured?' – these are the responses the company gained with its opening statement.

Munoz's statement seems to connect with its employees, but not with its consumers and audience at large. It may have acceptance for an internal communication, but it surely does not appeal to the masses. It simply highlighted the fact that United is looking out only for themselves – something which is just not the way a customer-service company reacts. Those who watched the video footage of the passenger being dragged off the plane naturally won't sympathize with the organization behind the act, meaning the apology has alienated its audience from its first sentence.

Too late a response is as good as nothing. It is of no use to bring back the situation under control. More to that, a miss-appropriately delivered message ruins whatever is left. The summed-up effects are potentially adverse – as United has faced and demonstrated.

An International Incident

Companies and brands that have global reach – an international airline, for instance – need to be really careful about the development of crisis in multiple countries simultaneously. Digital communications has virtually removed borders and make the news reach across the length and breadth of this globe. Taking United's case only, there is little connection between China's mainstream social media presence and that of the U.S., but after the crisis happened, the airline's brand value has taken a severe hit in the sizable Chinese market.

It was in discussions to the extent that some users of Chinese networks such as Weibo, have posted photos of their United rewards credit cards cut to pieces! Hilton + Knowlton Strategies' Alec Peck told the source that the social media storms in the U.S. and China had very little contact with one another. Instead, the crisis grew simultaneously and organically in both places.

Shanghai AtComm Consulting's Shirley King told PR Week that the criticism on the Chinese internet focused on other few particular elements of the incident. The video shows an elderly person being hurt; it represents a total negligence of customer service and, as the victim is of Asian descent, it appears to have a racial component too. All these aspects fueled the negative sentiments and resulted the United statements being criticized harshly.

Staying aware

So it's for sure that your PR Department or Agency wants to avoid this sort of a situation. If you want to prevent any event or happening from coming into spotlight, you ought to have a close vigilance on media and its international repercussions.

Breaking news doesn't take a minute to develop different characteristics when it roams across the globe. It's the onus of companies and their PR departments to remember that speed and resolve are two tools in their arsenal when a crisis hits, and need to make those core to their response plan. Needless to say, they have to have the PR101 tip of knowing their audience.