Reputation Management and the Messages that Should Never Be Sent

In today’s world where every customer is a potential journalist with a video camera, organizations need to rethink how they respond to threats to their reputation.

Every organization faced with a crisis is going to be slow to respond.  According to one study, it takes 21 hours for the typical organization to respond to a crisis situation.  That’s many hours too long, especially when a citizen video can go viral in minutes.

United Airlines was reminded of this lesson the hard way when it faced a crisis resulting when the passenger on a flight from Chicago was “re-accommodated” by being dragged from his assigned and paid for seat, bloodied by security officers and booted off the airplane so that a United employee could be accommodated.

“Communicator of the Year”

The first communiqué about this episode, appears to be the email message, sent by CEO Oscar Munoz, who had been named Communicator of the Year by a public relations association, that blamed the passenger while lauding the conduct of the employees at the boarding gate and on the aircraft. The message was widely condemned as ham-handed, CYA and vintage blame the victim.  It predictably boomeranged, presumably inspiring Munoz to get more involved, which he did by unequivocally apologizing to everyone and calling for a top-down review of procedures that led to the fiasco.

It’s not clear whether Munoz actually saw the message sent out under his name prior to its dissemination to United employees.  Did Munoz coin the word “re-accommodate” in this context?  Given his past history, I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt. If he did read it, he should have anticipated the leak and reaction, and then not sent it, instead calling his management team together to think through a comprehensive and sensitive response to the growing crisis.

It’s likely that United has a significant communications capability, but there was little evidence that it was working in a coordinated way—from the way spokespersons were initially interacting with news organizations to the way the company responded on social media.

If management was feeling pressure to communicate with its employees, but had not yet arrived at a way to talk about the incident to the public, Munoz could have said: “This incident was very disturbing, does not reflect our values as a company, and we are investigating what happened.  As soon as more details are known, I will be back in touch with more information and the actions we will take.”

I’m sure Munoz wishes he could have recalled the email he sent.  It provided too much information on the sequence of events without examining the overbooking policy that caused the ruckus and how it was applied in this case.  It went overboard in assuaging the feelings of employees, while blaming the conduct of the passenger.  It backfired.  It was a message originating without benefit of how to thoughtfully and sensitively react when stuff hits the turbofan, and this from a company that made over a billion dollars last year.

Questions for the CEO

Where the communications function resides in an organization and how its communications experts are used by senior management can determine how effectively the organization protects its reputation—both within and outside.  In the United case, were the human resources and communications departments on the same page?  This is especially important if internal communications are handled by HR, which is typical in large organizations.  Did the external communications executive have direct access to the CEO so that even if the CEO nixes the counsel, at least there’s a good chance of avoiding a debacle?  Was there a process for drafting and approving  and coordinating internal and external communications? 

Was there a crisis management and communications plan in place to deal with this type of event? A crisis communication plan is designed to ensure an accurate flow of appropriate information during turbulent times.  This plan provides a process upon which a crisis management team can use its abilities to effectively deal with a potentially volatile situation.  It outlines the necessary steps that need to be followed so that the crisis team can manage the issues, communications, and media.

Needless to say, the best crisis management is crisis avoidance.  Crises need not be of the magnitude of a major disaster to cause serious financial, business or image problems for an organization.

As billionaire investor Warren Buffett said: “We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation.”

Doug Barry

Conover & Gould Strategy Group