Lessons from United Airlines: 6 Steps For When Your PR Fails

Leadership Lessons from United Airlines

 

The minute the video starts, it’s obvious it will be explosive. And it sure has been. It has now been viewed millions of times around the world: A man is forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight.

Most of us are offended that the man was treated like this, bloodied as he was hauled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle. Most of us have also had our share of experiences with airlines, and this hits a nerve, like a final straw breaking the collective back of the paying passengers. We’ve been hit with baggage fees. We’ve been told, “No, you can’t have the whole can of soda.” Blankets disappeared ages ago. We’re scanned, wanded, searched, and pushed along through a system full of weary travelers with suspicious glances. Our flights are canceled or delayed for hours—always, it seems, the minute we arrive at the gate, harried and exhausted from running, of course.

Watching this man pulled off so brutally, we ask, “Why was he pulled off the flight?” The answer doesn’t make us feel any better: so that United Airlines could use the seat for a flight attendant.

A customer, obeying all rules, who the airline boarded moments before, who was sitting in the seat he paid for, was chosen at random for removal.

He didn’t want to get off the plane, and so the scene escalated.

Defenders of the airline will point out that this is not only legal, but then they point to his behavior during and after the incident. They will also point out that it was security, and not airline personnel, who removed him.

My law degree is decades old, and I’ve been an inactive member for too many years to weigh in on the legal issue here except to say that it’s far from clear.

 

Make the Right Choices

What’s clear to me is this:

United apparently chose policy over principle, chose employees over customers, chose to save a few dollars only to lose millions.

 

“When in doubt, choose principle over policy.” -Skip Prichard

 

Worse yet is when you remember United’s motto: Fly the friendly skies. Maybe the friendliness only starts when you’re airborne?

Many PR disasters seem to worsen just when you think the lowest point is reached.

And that’s what happened when the CEO stepped in with his comments. He sent a memo blaming the passenger and defending employees, saying that they were following existing procedures. He called the passenger disruptive and belligerent.

Did he apologize? He “apologized for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Re-accommodate? The man was bloody and seemed to be unconscious!

Only after outrage about his comments exploded online did he change to become “outraged” himself about the incident. His tone has now changed to apologetic. Yesterday he softened them further and even said it was a failure of policy and training. At least the tone is improving.

The minute I saw this video, I said the obvious: This is going to be a PR disaster for United. They better have a full crisis team working on it. When I saw the CEO’s comments, I said to a group that this would now make PR history. It has found a place in marketing classes where these types of mistakes are prominently featured. It may well be mentioned along with other great PR blunders like BP’s spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 10 minutes to ruin it.” -Warren Buffet

 

What can we learn from this entire mess?

 

 

Lessons from United

I’m reminded to always look on the positive side of things. That sentiment was shared by Andy Imbimbo, who posted this:

So many people are posting about this guy being dragged off a plane. I can’t remember the last time everyone has been so…….United!

 

“So many people are posting…I can’t remember the last time everyone’s been so..United!” -@AndyCoolBeans

 

That’s a great point. We are mostly united against this behavior. In a politically divided nation, it has shifted the conversation from politics.

Meanwhile, the public relations problem for United reminds me of how each of us can handle our screw-ups, mistakes, and errors in judgment. I’ve made my fair share, too, though thankfully not at all like this one.

Here are a few leadership lessons from United’s….well, to be kind, should I say “lapse in judgment”? 

 

Avoid

If you can avoid a problem, that’s always the first step. It wasn’t necessary. The employees could have driven the few hours to reach their destination and prioritized the customers. United could have offered a higher amount of money until they had enough volunteers. Why allow all of the passengers to board and take their seats if you didn’t have enough seats for them? There are a number of ways this could have been avoided.

 

“Never respond analytically to a problem growing emotionally.” -Skip Prichard

 

Admit

Here’s my rule: Never respond analytically to a problem growing emotionally. Pointing to policies and legalese will satisfy only a small percentage of the public. Most people want you to connect emotionally and sincerely first. No excuses. The language initially used made it worse. “We apologize that we had to re-accommodate some passengers” was such an emotional miss that it fueled the fire of an already outraged public. Always great to think of Molly Ivins. She once said, “The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.”

 

“The first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.” -Molly Ivins

 

Apologize

Apologies are not as easy as they may seem at first. I learned this especially from the research of Jennifer Thomas and the book she co-wrote with Gary Chapman. There is a specific language of apology. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to improve their communication, but PR departments should take note.

 

“Genuine apology opens the door to the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.” -Jennifer Thomas

 

 

Assess

Quotes from American Hero John Glenn

What’s Your Live-Acy?

John Glenn once said, “I’m not interested in my legacy. I made up my word: ‘live-acy.’ I’m more interested in living.”

And live he did. John Glenn passed away today at 95 here in Columbus, Ohio. He was a true American hero, a Senator, an astronaut that inspired many throughout the world. He was the first American to orbit the earth in 1962. Years later, in 1998, he became the oldest person in space.

He encouraged all of us to pursue what seems impossible.

Here are some of the quotes from the man who inspired so many:

 

“You can’t relive your life.” –John Glenn

 

“The political graveyards are full of people who don’t respond.” –John Glenn

 

“Fear connotes something that interferes with what you’re doing.” –John Glenn

 

“When the new becomes commonplace, people become accustomed to it. That’s a tribute to our sense of adventure.” –John Glenn

 

“There is still no cure for the common birthday.” –John Glenn

 

“There are times when you devote yourself to a higher cause than personal safety.” –John Glenn

 

“The most important thing we can do is inspire young minds.” –John Glenn

 

“To look out at this kind of creation out here and not believe in God is to me impossible.” –John Glenn

 

“We are more fulfilled when we are involved in something bigger than ourselves.” –John Glenn

 

“We have an infinite amount to learn from nature and from each other.” –John Glenn

 

“As I hurtled through space, one thought kept crossing my mind – every part of this rocket was supplied by the lowest bidder.” –John Glenn

 

“Zero-G and I feel fine.” –John Glenn

 

By signing up for FREE to Leadership Insights, you will have a positive stream of insights to reach your goals.

Already on my list? Enter your email above and you'll get instructions on how to access the webinar.

 

When Should Leaders Walk Away?

This is a guest post by Dave Yarin. Dave is a compliance and risk management consultant to directors of large and mid-size companies and the author of the upcoming book Fair Warning – The Information Within. You can follow Dave on Twitter.

The Sunk Cost Theory

The supersonic Concorde jet’s tragic crash in 2000 and retirement in 2003 was the end of a troubled history for the aircraft.  Plagued by design and development cost over-runs, the British and French governments that jointly developed the Concorde also knew that the plane wouldn’t be an economically viable business, yet they pressed on despite these warnings.  The plane’s history gave rise to the metaphor “The Concorde Fallacy” to describe when an individual or company spends more to continue a failed project rather than abandon it or pursue a less-costly alternative.  But why do companies behave this way, and can they overcome this phenomenon and make the critical decisions necessary for long-term success?

 

Leadership Danger: ignoring warnings to justify past decisions.

 

Social psychologists refer to a thought process known as the “sunk cost theory,” which often explains why companies ignore warnings and continue forward with failed projects or plans.  The sunk cost theory refers to the unconscious desire to have our current choices justify prior decisions.  It’s the reason many car owners continue to repair a lemon — because they can’t bear to give up on the money they’ve already spent — and it helps to explain why so many homeowners resist selling and cutting their losses when real estate prices tumble, only to unload their houses for even less just a few months later.  Time Magazine’s October 2011 article What Was I Thinking discussed why we often have trouble acting in our best financial interests.  Part of the article discusses why we “can’t let go” of a financial path that we put ourselves on.  For example, lawyers typically rank low on job-satisfaction surveys, but ask an attorney why he or she doesn’t switch careers, and they’ll probably respond by saying how long they’ve been practicing and how much law school cost.  The article also discusses what behavioral economists call loss aversion – the pain of making a loss final outweighs the rational reasons for making that transaction or decision.  The research of Daniel Kahneman, a 2002 Nobel Prize winner and Israeli psychologist, demonstrated that most people respond to the loss of a given amount of money about twice as strongly as they react to a similar gain.

Have companies been able to overcome the sunk cost fallacy, end a failed project despite significant investment, and succeed in the long run?  In the early 1990s, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts embarked on one of the most ambitious information system projects the industry had ever seen. “System 21” was heralded as “the future of Blue Cross,” a claims processing software marvel that would be cheaper and more responsive to customers.  But after six years of delays, cost overruns, and over $120 million invested in “System 21”, Blue Cross Blue Shield management faced the prospect of going to the board of directors to not only explain the delays but request another $120 million to complete the project.  Blue Cross ultimately scrapped the project and turned its computer operation over to an outside contractor.  The company has since moved on to become one of the most successful health plans in the industry, recording net income of $163.9 million in 2012. In the long run, walking away from a $120 million failed IT project was better than pouring far more time and money into it.

 

Ask if your company is investing in a failing project because it can’t let go.