Sometimes, common sense should overrule systems

Trying to make sense of United Airlines' crisis-response strategy.

This week saw one of the most challenging—and polarizing—situations in the business world since the advent of social media.

That’s not meant to be hyperbole, as it seems like every new crisis overtakes the prior ones in some way, shape, or form, but the incident on United flight 3411—before it ever left the ground—certainly made it the most discussed flight of the day, by a country mile. You need only peek at LinkedIn or any other platform, or this publication, for multiple takes by communications experts discussing what went wrong, and what United should do to recover. For me, the piece of advice that stuck out the most was given by a former colleague of mine, Carreen Winters of MWWPR, who suggested "the airline must place an internal focus on empowering employees to use good judgment and common sense in the application of policies."

As a frequent flyer who has regularly logged 80,000 to 120,000 miles a year for the last 10 to 12 years, I could not agree more, but that’s not what I wanted to touch on here.

Something I noted on Monday was that the usually super-responsive @united Twitter account was amazingly silent for more than a dozen hours as the company appeared to be addressing the situation. After posting a response by the company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, at 9:27 a.m. PST, it posted nothing until 11:50 p.m. PST that evening, when it went back to the typical customer service activities you might see on any given day. At first glance, I get it. I’ve helped manage crises for multiple organizations, including those with global reach, and have made the decision to hold posting and other activities in order to act in accordance with those situations.

In this case, Munoz’s response was borderline confident, and a holding statement at best. The latter is a fairly tried-and-true action to take in any given situation, but the tonality and language simply stoked the fire even further. PRWeek’s own Steve Barrett called it "tone-deaf" and that it "smacked of legalese aimed at avoiding future litigation." So I was surprised to see the massive gap between tweets to customers, many of which you wouldn’t see unless you were following both parties, or visited United’s profile on Twitter, so it’s not as if it would have appeared (even more) tone-deaf to the average person.

To me, the silence in the hours that followed the company’s response was deafening, and it made me wonder about a few things. Should a company abandon its customer service efforts in a situation such as this? Obviously it needs to be more vigilant about things, but flights were arriving and departing literally around the globe. Would other passengers, many of them business flyers with a certain expectation of customer service, react adversely? Is there a "line" United believed the situation crossed that caused it to go dark? Has the prevalence of tools like Twitter, bots, and voice applications that have helped create amazing scale for organizations needing to service thousands customers become its biggest unintended foe, as they can carry a message that creates an even bigger firestorm? If anything, people’s opinions of its customer service abilities probably dipped even further during this situation, as customers might have perceived the company as being crippled by a situation the day prior. Not a good look for the airline you’re looking to take you across the country.

This is where Winters’ comments come into play, as United strikes me as being extremely binary in its decision making. While air travel is an extremely complicated business with a ridiculous number of moving parts, that doesn’t mean there can’t be a way for employees to feel empowered to do things that aren’t simply "by the book" every time. And before you say "but all airlines have these issues," I beg to differ. Many airlines - JetBlue, Alaska, Southwest, to name a few - pride themselves on how they handle customers in any situation, positive or negative. In this case, the systems in place to keep the massive United airlines flying derailed other parts of the business over what might have been a low-four-figure sum at the end of the day. The company has gone on and on about how the four crew members they needed to move downline would cascade issues across its flights if they didn’t get on that flight. By solely focusing on that and not grasping the consequences of the situation at hand—whether you agree with the passenger that was dragged from his seat’s actions or not—the company has sent cascading issues through its business that it will face for months, if not years, to come.

Tom Biro resides in Seattle and is an independent PR practitioner. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached on Twitter @tombiro.

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