There was a time when a mention of United Airlines conjured the company’s enduring slogan, "Fly the friendly skies of United." More recently, the storied airline’s name has been linked with less-friendly cultural references such as "Fight Club."
The viral video of a "bumped" passenger being removed from the plane may have lit the fuse, but the real social media explosion resulted from the subsequent tone-deaf statement delivered by the airline’s CEO. Instantly, everyone who has ever been wronged by poor airline service forwarded the story and shared their own frustrations. In a matter of hours, United Airlines became the poster child for everything that’s wrong about air travel these days.
It didn’t have to be. Yes, physically dragging a 69-year-old passenger off a flight because you need to free up a seat for a crew member is appalling. However, had United’s initial response been more thoughtful, they would likely have endured criticism for only one news cycle, instead of for a week.
Someday, your company may find itself as the target of a social media storm. It could be something like an accidental spill of a chemical that caused a fish kill, discovery of insects and rodents in your baked goods, or a spokesperson being arrested on a morals charge. As a company leader, you may not have had any control of the situation, but you can control how you respond. There are two rules you absolutely must remember.
First, your public relations (or communications, or whatever you call them) people must be in the room from moment one. They need to be involved in crafting the strategy for how you will (or won’t) respond. They have the training and expertise to know what the public and the media will want you to do, and how those entities will likely react to other responses. After reading the United CEO’s response, I’m convinced that nobody from the airline’s PR department participated in the decision to issue it. If they were there, I suspect they were silenced by “wiser” minds higher up the corporate food chain.
(And no offense, but in my experience, top management of a company is often a step or two removed from the average stakeholder. Their view of the company and its marketplace is typically shaped by what their team tells them, instead of by what’s happening outside the executive suite. Good PR professionals occupy both worlds, so they can recognize how a well-intentioned statement drafted by a CEO might be misheard or misinterpreted by a reporter or a frustrated customer.)
Second, those public relations people must draft the response. Even if it’s going to be issued by the CEO, let the professionals come up with words. Yes, your legal team will want to review it, but if you let the PR people develop the initial draft, you’ll end up with a far more effective response than if you let the lawyers write it and allow PR to edit it. Messages that are drafted by folks in the C-suite tend to be perfect examples of why committees make lousy writers.
A simple fact of today’s communications universe is that whoever issues the first words frames and controls the message. That’s critical when you’re communicating with the public. It’s every bit as important when you’re communicating with the media. Even if your company has to admit to having done something bad, when you’re the first one who speaks, you control the scope and tone of the message. If the media (or social media) gets there first, all you’ll be able to do is respond to whatever they’ve chosen to say. You’ll be forced to use their word choices and terminology, and their choices are invariably less flattering than the ones you would have made. In essence, your role switches to damage control instead of preventing damage in the first place.
The underlying problem here is that far too many top managers regard the elements of communications, among them public relations and marketing, as window dressing. Companies that have maintained strong reputations over the years and weathered debacles like the United video typically grant communications a strategic importance that’s on a par with their legal, finance, and human resources departments.
Fortunately for United, some other company will eventually trip over itself, and that company’s CEO will tweet a similarly tone-deaf response that will move the spotlight away from the airline. It’s up to you to make sure it doesn’t move in your direction.
Scott Flood is the owner of Scott Flood Writing.