Hot Take: United Airlines Caught in the PR Crosshairs

What happened on United Flight 3411, of course, is now a global media story, spurred by the viral video popping up in everyone’s Facebook feed and Twitter timeline.

The United Airlines cabin crew of Flight 3411 had security officers drag a man off a plane in Chicago when he wouldn’t give up his seat for an airline employee. The man in question, a medical doctor who claimed he could not leave the flight as he had to return home to see patients, refused to budge and was consequently bruised and bloodied as he was dragged down the aisle while horrified passenger filmed and photographed the incident with their phones. Those images, in turn, quickly went viral on social media.

But, as we all know, what continued to transpire only made matters worse. United CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement April 10 about the “upsetting event” that read in part, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.” The strange, stilted language of the response fueled an even greater wave of social media outrage, as well as a number of genuinely clever and funny takes on “re-accommodate” (although no one at United’s headquarters is laughing).

Further compounding the problem, the CEO released an internal memo to employees, which presented a very different story. The memo stated the customer “defied” security officers and “employees followed established procedures,” and closes with the CEO saying, “I emphatically stand behind all of you.”

On top of a wave of mass outrage on social media, the story ran prominently in traditional media worldwide. The doctor was of Vietnamese ethnicity, spiraling this into an international incident and the top trending item on Asian social media site Sina Weibo (akin to Twitter, but bigger) with more than 270 million views. Did we mention United has spent decades cultivating the highly profitable Asian international aviation market?

The Implications of Apologies

Hindsight is, of course, always 20/20. Corporate communicators who have worked for large enterprises and lived through crises compounded by internal errors will feel a true spirit of concord for the agony experienced by United’s first-class PR team.

But within all enterprises there are forces that, largely in the name of risk-aversion (ironically enough), will steer the organization down a path of vague communications and “corporate-speak” rhetoric. And, more often than not, the C-suite will be torn about which path to follow – do we speak or not speak? Do we say something carefully crafted by the legal team? Do we play for time? Do we have enough information to comment knowledgeably? What are the share price and legal implications of an apology?

Reputation is much more than a communications and branding issue, and good companies with good reputations can have, by the nature of their business, many vocal detractors. Best practice companies employ both outside vendors (to provide objectivity as well as training) and look beyond merely “brand marketing” or “operational risk.” They also seek to integrate reputation-awareness and vigilance across the firm, with accountability at all levels (board, executive management, strategy, finance, tactical/functional management, operations, front lines).

As a Dallas public relations firm, we share our home with two of the world’s largest airlines, and have recently worked with a third. Airlines are, given the nature of the business, rightly obsessed with ensuring their crisis protocols and scenarios are always of the highest order. But, like many organizations, it can sometimes be easy to confuse reputational risk with operational or financial risk—leaving oneself vulnerable to the former.

Mitigating Reputational Risk

Companies need to be mindful of the many worlds in which they work and the myriad reputational risks on the horizon. We have identified a clear disconnect between many firms’ GRC (Governance, Risk Management and Compliance) or ERM (Enterprise Risk Management) functions—which are usually located within finance, operations, IT and legal departments—and those of reputation management, which are usually siloed within communications and/or marketing departments.

In best practice organizations, there should be a unit dedicated to the governance of reputation management, or at the very least a senior-level committee with teeth and a direct reporting line to the CEO. Where, within the organization, such dedicated resources might reside depends very much upon the skills sets or strengths of the senior staff. The functional “owner” may be found with the Chief Risk Officer and risk management department but can just as easily be found in finance, internal audit, HR, legal, or with the Chief Marketing Officer or Chief Communications Officer. Wherever the responsibility sits, the owners of reputation management cannot be allowed to operate in isolation from the C-suite.

Beyond the structure of reputation management within the company, enterprises should ask questions about the effectiveness of reputation management systems and what sort of controls and checkpoints exist. For example, does the firm incorporate reputational risk into scenario planning and stress testing? Are outside vendors are used to maintain objectivity and prevent either mission creep or death-by-committee, etc.? Reputational measures should be defined and included within, say, balanced score card reports or any other similar reporting structures the business may use.

It seems obvious to look back and advise not to assault your customers and don’t hide behind elusive corporate language. Yet, all enterprises must be ever vigilant and take active steps to ensure effective internal and external communications are a central pillar of a proactive, enterprise-wide reputation building strategy.