Poor Handling of a Crisis Can Damage a Company’s Reputation Almost Immediately

Just ask United, American and Delta.

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Crisis incidents can occur in business at any time. In the not too distant past, only the most serious incidents received major coverage by the news media. Not anymore. The proliferation of smartphone cameras and social media has changed the game forever.

April 2017 turned out to be a tough public relations month for United, American and Delta Airlines:

April 9 – Passenger David Dao was “bumped” from an overbooked United Airlines fight in Chicago. Dao and his wife initially agreed to the bump, but they changed their minds when they realized their re-booked flight would not arrive at their destination until the next day. It was then that Dao was forcibly removed from the flight and ended up “bloodied and bruised” after a scuffle with authorities.

April 21 – Olivia Morgan boards an American Airlines flight with her two kids and a stroller. She somehow gets the large stroller to her seat in the rear of the plane. A flight attendant tells her she cannot keep her stroller at her seat. She refuses to give it up. Accounts vary, but most witnesses agree that the flight attendant violently took the stroller from her, hitting her with it and narrowly missing one of her kids in the process.

Also on April 21 – An altercation broke out between two women disembarking a Delta flight in Atlanta. A Delta pilot intercedes in an attempt to break up the fight. He tries to pull them apart and, at one point, slaps one of the women.

Of course, all three incidents were captured on bystanders’ smartphones, and social media exploded.

Follow-up responses by the airlines to these incidents varied. Initially, United CEO Oscar Munoz, who was recently named Communicator of the Year by PR Week, only apologized for having to “re-accommodate our customers.” Most judged his response overly callous. Munoz then made things worse by sending an internal memo to employees calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” It wasn’t until the next day that Munoz issued a full apology, calling the incident “truly horrific.”

On the other hand, American Airlines immediately issued a heartfelt statement, saying that the stroller incident “does not reflect our values or how we care for out customers.”

Delta took immediate steps to remove the slapping pilot from duty while they completed a “thorough investigation.” Surprisingly, Delta later issued a statement that their investigation found that the pilot’s actions had “de-escalated an altercation between passengers” and returned him to duty.

It’s readily apparent, and somewhat surprising, that the airlines responded quite differently to these three embarrassing and potentially costly public relations nightmares. One of the foremost guidelines of crisis communications is “never be a villain.” American seemed to get that right, United clearly didn’t, and Delta’s overall reaction seems to be leaning the wrong way.

Corporate response to potentially damaging public relations incidents must be immediate, because social media is. What once was a 24-hour news cycle is now a 24-second blast of Facebook posts, tweets, and online video. The court of public opinion, which will initially emerge through social media sites, is rarely sympathetic to corporate giants.

Every company needs detailed procedures, policies, and protocols around initial reactions to serious and potentially reputation-damaging incidents. Some basic guidelines are:

  • React immediately.
  • Be sympathetic and empathetic.
  • Take care of all victims quickly.
  • Err on the side of doing too much, not too little.
  • Empower customer contact individuals to “do the right thing, right now.”
  • Don’t direct blame. The facts will emerge eventually.
  • Most importantly, train all employees in proper responses, and then train them again.

Not all crisis incidents are of national concern. But social media can turn a local event into a national PR crisis in a heartbeat. Retail loss professionals are on the front line and are often first responders to serious in-store incidents. Get trained, and be prepared. If you do not have complete knowledge and training around your company’s response procedures and protocols, go get that knowledge now.

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