High Stakes

Crisis 101: Don’t Make Me “Re-accommodate” You

Crisis 101: Don't Make Me “Re-accommodate” You

A crisis is a horrible thing to waste.

No matter the industry, crisis communicators should always look for opportunities to turn a negative into a positive. When your organization has suffered a setback, it’s vital to resist the urge to put up your guard. Smart organizations engage their stakeholders – both customers and staff – to reaffirm their commitments and repair damaged connections. United Airlines has not learned this lesson yet.

I flew the “friendly skies” twice on April 12 – the day after the United suffered a self-inflicted public relations crisis by forcibly removing Dr. David Dao from a Louisville-bound flight. As I boarded both my flights, I overheard jokes from fellow passengers hoping we wouldn’t be asked to give up our seats or otherwise be “re-accommodated.” An elderly lady even said she was fearful about flying United but already had purchased her ticket and couldn’t get a refund. With the previous day’s events in mind, I wondered if the crew would address the elephant in the room (or on the plane).

Would the captain or flight attendant read a statement addressing the incident and saying how much they valued their passengers?  Would there be a note in the seatback pocket from the CEO apologizing and promising to do better in the future?  Or, would I get a free drink to show the embattled airline’s thanks for my patronage the day after their misstep?

To my surprise, it was business as usual. Not so much as a mention of the Doa incident.

United missed a real opportunity to engage their most authentic messengers – their crew, in connecting with their most valuable audience – their passengers.

After suffering such an epic blunder, the airline should not waste a single second or squander a single opportunity to start rebuilding reputation. Thousands of people fly the airline each day. Failing to engage passengers and address the crisis reinforces the image of United as an uncaring corporate bully.

And if, on the backside of a crisis, your organization fails to engage, you’ll look like a uncaring bully too. Pretending not to see the elephant is rarely, if ever, the correct move.

By now, every PR professional in the country is opining about how horribly United handled the incident. And rightfully so. The United incident will be a case study for crisis communicators for the next 30 years.

So, here’s to our continued learning from United’s mistakes. Can I get that drink now?


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