Could data and humanity have saved United Airlines?

Charles Lankester, EVP at Ruder Finn Asia, explores the four things the embattled airline could have done to avert what has developed into a massive PR disaster.

The treatment of the passenger being removed from United Flight 3411 was appalling. United’s management of the situation will also prove to be a case study in what not do when managing a spiraling reputational crisis. Based on what United taught us last week, there are four very simple lessons for any CEO and his or her management team.

First, speak human
I appreciate it has been dissected to death, but United’s first response was really awful. Bloodless, technical, and tundra-like in its frostiness, it also gave us a new word—"re-accommodate"—that has launched a whole new meme frenzy. I won’t play the usual lawyer versus PR person blame game, but what on earth were they thinking? United CEO Oscar Munoz’s second, third, and any other statements will never take away the leaden thud of his first. Companies can’t speak warmly when things are going well and then turn frosty when they are not. United sounded like a machine when it needed to sound like a person.

Second, think ahead
Hindsight is wonderful, I know, but what happened on that aircraft was not exactly unthinkable. Shocking yes, but predictable. Elderly passenger? Check. Heavy handed security? Check. Lots of people filming on smartphones? Check. Any decent scenario planner could have come up with this one. The problem? Most companies lack imagination when thinking about reputational risk. They also often avoid asking themselves tough, unpleasant, or uncomfortable questions, needlessly restricting themselves to one-dimensional "enterprise risk management." As United’s experience showed, reputation risk does not live in a tickable box. Businesses need to think more like film scriptwriters and less like risk managers when thinking about crisis scenarios in 2017.

Third, use data
The first videos from Flight 3411 appeared on Twitter at 7: 30 p.m. EST. The first media enquiry was received at 10 p.m. Corporations need permanent digital overwatch to allow them to capture negative or controversial material on a real-time basis. This can also be looked at from a predictive standpoint: how much traction were the films generating online? United could have quickly analyzed their social velocity and realized the situation was very bad and was going to get very big.

Fourth, develop playbooks
Agree exactly how your organization will respond in the event of a direct reputational hit. What will you do? What will you say? Who will say it? There is little more painful than writing a crisis management plan in the middle of a crisis. Ask United.

United is a big company, and it will get through this. At the time of writing, it has just announced crew members will no longer be able to bump a passenger who is already seated to ensure "situations like Flight 3411 never happen again." But one thing is certain. United could have managed the original situation very differently by adopting a six-word strategy: speak human, think ahead, use data.

Charles Lankester is EVP of the global reputation and risk-management practice at Ruder Finn

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