PR lessons from Al Golin and United Flight 3411

The last seven days goes to show just how important wise PR counsel is for every modern enterprise in maintaining reputation and mitigating risk.

United CEO Oscar Munoz eventually went on Good Morning America to apologize.
United CEO Oscar Munoz eventually went on Good Morning America to apologize.

As a crazy week draws to a close it’s time to draw breath and recap the lessons learned.

It started on a very sad note on Saturday with the passing of Al Golin, a PR legend and an inspiration to so many people – someone I had the honor to meet on a number of occasions and very glad I was to have done so too.

The pace ramped up Sunday with the unpleasant and frankly horrific video emerging from within United Airlines Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville of the unacceptable treatment of Dr. David Dao as he has dragged off the plane to make way for United employees that needed the seat. According to YouGov, United’s consumer perception fell to its lowest level for 10 years over the past three days.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer chimed in as usual with an even-more-extraordinary performance than usual on Tuesday during his daily press briefing when he claimed Hitler didn’t use chemical weapons, conveniently forgetting the millions who were gassed to death in Nazi concentration camps.

And Uber joined the fray on Wednesday as another high-profile executive, extremely well-regarded communications lead Rachel Whetstone, jumped ship just prior to another furor about the ailing ridesharing company as it was accused of tracking rival Lyft drivers.

As most of you probably know, PRWeek got caught up in the United situation because we had awarded CEO Oscar Munoz with our Communicator of the Year title at our annual gala in New York last month.

In Sports Illustrated cover jinx fashion, United had already blotted its copybook on the communications front since then with the #leggingsban incident, but it really doubled down with its botched initial response to the Flight 3411 incident.

A tone-deaf tweet from Munoz and an ill-advised internal note to staff that was distributed widely totally missed the mark communications-wise, containing phrases such as "re-accommodate" and another one that described Dao as "disruptive and belligerent."

The initial responses came late and seemed to bear the hallmarks of a legal department looking to cover itself rather than an empathetic response in line with United’s stated values of "making every flight a positive experience for our customers" and to "treat passengers fairly and consistently in the case of oversales."

Values have to go beyond platitudes on the written page and must be lived every day by every member of an organization, especially in a service industry such as an airline where the first line of communications is customers’ face-to-face interaction with United staffers.

Munoz and United finally got back on track on Tuesday when it released a full and appropriate apology to Dr. Dao and the CEO went on Good Morning America on Wednesday to face the music. Munoz stressed that "no one should ever be treated this way" and "I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and all customers aboard."

It was what should have happened immediately after the incident and it seemed some common sense had been injected into the strategy. All passengers on the plane were informed they would be getting a refund for their inconvenience and for the unpleasantness of the incident.

The only jarring note for me was when Munoz said the airline hadn’t acted more swiftly because they were trying to discover all the facts before making an apology, but that didn’t tally with his original description of Dao as "disruptive and belligerent." How would he know that if he hadn’t got all the facts?

Dao apparently suffered a broken nose and concussion in the incident and is being represented by a personal injury lawyer who will no doubt be looking to sue United for as much as they can get unless an out-of-court settlement can be reached.

For the sake of a couple of thousand dollars in vouchers at the gate it was all so unnecessary and a particularly false economy measure.

All in all, it gave the Twitter-sphere and mediarati plenty of opportunity to throw around the phrase "PR nightmare," which commonly becomes the blanket term to describe anything negative that happens to a company.

The initial comms response certainly exacerbated the problem, but as I explained to Stuart Varney on his Fox Business Varney & Co. show on Wednesday morning, the real cause of the problem was operating procedures around overbooking and the measures used to get people off planes. These were systemic issues, not PR issues.

I was pleased to see Munoz use his final statement to emphasize that United would be completely reviewing its procedures in respect to overbooking, crew movements, incentivizing volunteers, and partnering with airport authorities and law enforcement.

And, in his interview with ABC News, he reiterated that law enforcement officers would no longer be put on planes to take people off.

The United Flight 3411 event, Pepsi’s travails last week with its ill-fated ad, Uber’s ongoing problems, the Sean Spicer daily reality show, Starbucks’ #RaceTogether initiative last year, the New York Police Department, #McDStories, and many many others show that dealing with incidents like this is becoming a core part of the PR pro’s skill set.

There’s no established playbook yet, and each crisis is slightly different, but every brand, company, or organization needs to have a clear plan in place to roll out when such events occur. A swift holding statement at the very least should be standard practice, followed as quickly as possible by definitive action once all the facts are uncovered. This is a 24/7 365 days a year enterprise and communications pros must be ready to swing into action at all times.

Most of all, it demonstrates how crucial good communications counsel is these days and why the PR team has to be involved at the strategy and operating stage, not just in cleaning up the mess afterwards.

In this context, Al Golin’s seminal book from 2003, Trust or Consequences: Build Trust Today or Lose Your Market Tomorrow, is more relevant than ever and I recommend every PR pro gets hold of a copy if they don’t already own it to help prepare themselves for today’s visceral and unforgiving communications world.

RIP the great man – but his lessons live on.

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