United’s response to video hurt it more than helped it, but why?

The video of security officers dragging a passenger down the aisle of a United Airlines jet in Chicago Sunday evening continues to wreak havoc at the company and beyond.

Reverberations continue to ring outward. Four airlines control 80 percent of domestic air travel. Front-page stories, national cable and network news coverage and millions of social media shares constitute an enormous wave of negativity and damage. The company lost 1 percent of its stock value, recovering at day’s end Tuesday from a 4 percent drop.

Why, especially for a savvy CEO and PR apparatus as United has, does it continue to fumble and trip? Why did CEO Oscar Munoz, named by PRWeek as communicator of the year in 2016, emerge tone-deaf? Why did an airline, which by its very nature has the best crisis managers to be found, fail to grasp the enormity of that video?

Image result for Oscar Munoz

Perspective on perception.

If one examines the series of incremental responses over 40 hours that culminated with Munoz’s abject apology to the detained passenger and others with him on the plane, it’s easy to grasp that executive leadership failed to get out of their own world, and no one present had the guts to make them.

No company, or executive, wants to admit wrongdoing. So they hedge, rationalize and demure. United, particularly vulnerable in the first place as an airline, was still stinging from last week’s reaction to removing two girls wearing tights on a flight.

As a result, officials tried to find an elusive silver lining to that stark video. The passenger was disruptive. We were only following procedures. The rationalizations swarm.

It’s called a crisis because no one involved can think clearly.

That’s why you have a crisis plan and why smart leaders train for a crisis response. But if you don’t follow the plan, if you don’t listen to crisis experts, you’ll fail to grasp how others see you. Munoz is surely a smart guy, credited with doing much to help turn around United’s fortunes. But he and any other executive in his position is emotional. He doesn’t want to admit that his brand is going up in flames because of a 30-second video.

When you are in a crisis, you need calm, clear-thinking individuals to tell you how this will play out. In this case, the punishment for whatever perceived or justifiable “crime” the passenger committed promised to overwhelm the reasons Munoz might use to explain away what happened.

When leaders get defensive they waste a ton of time — in this case about 40 hours — trying to do anything but apologize. It wasn’t until Tuesday afternoon that Munoz did what he should have done at 10 p.m. Sunday night: Issue an abject, complete “we’re guilty as hell and we know it” apology to Dr. David Dao and his fellow passengers.

Why not sooner? Why all the intervening parsing? Because Munoz and his colleagues stared into the abyss and recoiled. And at that moment, without even realizing it, they shrank back in fear. They decided they could rationalize, duck and cover and contain this wildfire.

But they could not.

As The New York Times noted:

Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, the airline changed course again, with Mr. Munoz saying that United would take “full responsibility” for the situation.

“Better late than never, but the sentiment certainly rings a bit hollow when it follows two previous failures and 36 hours of intense public pressure,” said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, a principal at the corporate public relations firm Group Gordon. “The back-against-the-wall, through-gritted-teeth apology isn’t generally a winning strategy.”

Basic crisis management says, obtain the facts fast, take responsibility, apologize fully and sincerely, and promise to fix what went wrong. Of course they can see that now. Of course they know what they should have done.

But it’s too late.

For an informed look at what a company should do, check out Dave Crenshaw’s take on Linkedin.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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United, already lowest of the low, gets worse; now what?

If an official at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman or Nieman Marcus told guards to drag a customer out of one of their stores, the video would be a momentary flourish.

That’s because everyone knows those retailers’ long-standing reputations for excellent service, customer-first decision making and a culture in which such behavior would be an aberration.

Now let’s look at United Airlines, whose stock is falling and whose reservations are going away [one must assume] in the wake of a viral video showing guards bloodying and dragging a passenger down the aisle of a plane in Chicago Sunday night.

The 30-second video, complete with screams, is of a doctor who declined to leave his flight, which the airline had oversold, because he was randomly selected to get off.

The key word here is “airline.” Because all airlines are held in such low regard by the traveling public that they are ripe to be abused, disliked and hated when they really screw up. Seats are too narrow. “On-time” means 80 percent of the time. “Meals” are peanuts or pretzels. Non-stops are rare. And the gate where you land is usually two miles and a half hour tram ride away from the gate from which your next flight will leave in 10 minutes.

united2.jpg

The whole flying experience — airport traffic, TSA security, airline rules, the flights themselves, baggage collection and airport traffic again — is horrible. And the airlines are only part of that.

But let’s turn to what United should do now. In short, everything it possibly can, and fast.

CEO Oscar Munoz’s apology was insincere, and then he appeared to blame the passenger. Later Tuesday, almost 40 hours after the initial video went viral, he apologized to the passenger. But he failed to keep up with or grasp the speed of social media. That apology should have been posted in the wee hours of Monday morning, if not late Sunday.

And where was the captain and crew? Why didn’t someone stop this affront? Did all the passengers understand that if someone didn’t accept a financial incentive four people would be randomly removed? And did United explain that the four people who needed seats were a United flight crew?

The answer lies in the firm belief of most fliers that they are simply a butt in a seat — and a narrow one at that. They’re not customers. They’re not preferred. They’re no longer cared about or for. Their money provides the minimum, or less.

We are, in reality, a number for a computer to spit out so guards can force you from the flight the airline promised you you had a reservation for.

As The Chicago Tribune reported:

Munoz said United is conducting a detailed review of the incident, which he called “an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” At the same time, United defended its policies and its employees while saying in a letter to employees Monday night, “there are lessons we can learn from this experience.”

Here’s one: The legal maximum an airline can offer a passenger to voluntarily leave a flight is $1,350. Passengers on this flight were offered $800 as the max. If I were United, I’d go to the max, and say so starting today, every time a United flight is overbooked for the next two weeks.

“We’re full, if you elect to take another flight, we’ll guarantee you’re booked on it now and give you the max, $1,350.”

Here’s another: Announce now that you will no longer oversell flights. End the practice, which is obnoxious at its inception.

Restaurants don’t add a random couple to your dinner reservation for four. Car rental companies don’t place people in the back seat and tell you to drive them to their destination, or you can’t have a car. And has anyone ever showed up for a cruise only to find another family in your cabin? Uber doesn’t stop and pick up extra passengers when you’ve called for a ride to the airport.

I’d additionally announce an immediate revamp of United customer service. Top to bottom. I’d hire the consultants that make Amazon, Saks, Tom’s Shoes, Apple and any other number of beloved brands so popular. And then I’d commit time, effort and money to investing in changing the company’s attitudes from the top.

It’s been done. Chrysler under Lee Iacocca. Apple under Steve Jobs. Amazon under Jeff Bezos.

Flying on United is a choice. And the entire company needs an attitude transplant — as does every other airline — short of Virgin Atlantic, Emirates and Singapore airlines. And fast. And if I were Delta, Southwest, Jet Blue, and all the others, I’d take this as a teaching moment and react.

Finally, I’d express shame, apologize for complete corporate failure, and keep repeating that. For…the…rest…of…your…career.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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Will Fox News survive Bill O’Reilly?

Seems there might be a new book by Bill O’Reilly in the works: Killing O’Reilly.

He’s doing a pretty good job of it. As The New York Times reported Sunday, Fox and its controversial night-time host paid at least five women $13 million to settle sexual harassment claims. The story contained a word for self-gratification I never thought I’d ever see on the front page of the Times, unless it was in Woody Allen’s obit.

Bill-O’Reilly.jpg

The corporate reaction by advertisers was swift. Almost two-dozen — out of hundreds — cancelled their buys on O’Reilly’s show. And these weren’t mattress and health supplement ads. Mercedes, BMW, Hyundai, GSK, Bayer, Lexus and several others issued statements distancing their brands from O’Reilly. The National Organization for Women called for his firing. And this, of course, follows last year’s dismissal of Fox founding chairman Roger E. Ailes for similar charges.

According to the Times, “a spokesman for Mr. O’Reilly, Mark Fabiani, declined to comment on Tuesday. Mr. O’Reilly has said that the accusations against him are without merit and that his fame has made him a target ‘for those who would harm me and my employer, the Fox News Channel.’ He did not address the issue on either his Monday night or Tuesday night broadcasts.”

What’s a media superstar to do? Especially one who in his defense, cloaks himself with his employer. He’s saying, it’s not just me, it’s Fox, and if I go down, it does as well.

O’Reilly, through his prime time show The O’Reilly Factor is an enormous franchise. The show generated almost half a billion dollars in ad revenue from 2014-16, the newspaper reported. His books are immediate bestsellers.

Not that anyone expects it, but if he called me, here’s what I’d tell him to do: Apologize. Drop the “no comment” stuff. Take six weeks off and enter a serious rehab. It could be for anger management — his daughter testified in his divorce that she’d seen him abuse her mother — sexual addiction or any other problem.

Look yourself in the mirror and apologize sincerely and fully. Take responsibility. Show your character. Do what’s right. You know, the stuff you’re always telling others to do.

Admit your shortcomings publicly and promise to do better. Apologize to your victims, your colleagues, your friends, your family and everyone you embarrassed and hurt. This isn’t a political issue. This is a behavioral issue. To whom much is given, much is expected. Do the right thing.

Come back in six weeks “a new person.” Clean up your act, or resign.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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Price Waterhouse may lose Oscars, but not overall reputation

By now, everyone’s aware of the human error at the Oscars Sunday night that led to Faye Dunaway reading the wrong best picture winner — La La Land.

And, social media has not been kind to Price Waterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm that handled Oscar voting and tabulation for eight decades.

But as mistakes, scandals and crises go, this is not huge. Most experts say the mix-up could cost the second-largest American accounting firm its Oscar gig, but it won’t hurt it with corporate customers.

The bottom line is safe. Image result for moonlight oscars

This wasn’t a scandal, involving voter fraud — or even Russian hacking. This was a simple screw-up. The wrong envelope went out on stage. Plain as day when you watch the replay. Moonlight [right] won for best picture, fair and square. No one took anything away and the fix was fast.

If some nefarious Price Waterhouse partner had rigged the vote, or skewed the decisions in some way with overt cheating, that would undermine the company. You don’t want to be the PWC partner who messed up, but it’s not the end of the world.

To the company’s credit, it apologized immediately, did its best to explain what caused the mistake  and, you can be sure, talked to the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences about how this would never happen again.

In 2008, when the economy was collapsing and Too Big to Fail banks had to turn out their pockets, major American accounting firms were shown to be complicit with the banks’ creative bookkeeping. That’s when they took hits to their reputation.

This was an individual mistake; not a corporate one. Further, it was not the sort of error that can be easily tied back to a bad corporate culture.

This is an embarrassment, not a crisis for PWC.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

 

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Annual look at how crisis hurts

Other than President Trump, who seems to thrive by crisis, the annual look at how crises hurt brands is out and it reinforces why companies need to be prepared and deal with a crisis openly and effectively.

Or else.

Thanks to the ever well-read Eric Mower, we have Ad Week’s report on a compendium of brand winners and losers on this score in 2016.

The losers? You might have guessed: Chipotle, Wells Fargo, Samsung, Trump Taj Mahal, and Wells Fargo Advisors. That has to be the first time one company scored worst for two brands. The bank, of course, was the center of an enormous controversy involving bank salespeople opening accounts for customers without their permission. The CEO was canned. Congress got involved. Bad juju.

Samsung had exploding phones; Chipotle served contaminated food; and Trump’s brands are under assault all over.

Here are the top 10 improving brands — counted no doubt prior to Uber’s latest mess that broke last weekend.

The scores come from polling by YouGov of 1.2 million people about 1,500 brands.

Generated by social media and picked up by legacy media, the good and the bad support or kill brands. Especially in the consumer sector, where competition abounds, the issues plaguing the hurt brands mean consumers just go elsewhere. Why eat at Chipotle and risk illness? I’ll go to McDonald’s or BK or a local diner. Don’t need a Galaxy Note 7 when I can get an iPhone or some other smartphone. And banks? There’s one on every corner.

And, as is true of most companies hit by a crisis, bad news hurts more than good news helps. Consumers expect Uber to be on time; they shop at Amazon because it delivers on its promises; it loves Nike because it’s so smart and cool. And so on.

But when a brand tanks, it takes dramatic, long-term remediation. Look at Domino’s Pizza, which ran a campaign saying its pizza was terrible and it was committed to improving it. Subway’s reputation still hasn’t bounced back from the Jared scandal. And the list goes on.

Here are the Top 10 highest rated brands:

Even these must expect a crisis. Have a plan for dealing with it. Communicate that plan internally. Make sure to take responsibility, apologize, fix the problem and commit to improvement.

Or, get on the list of the Bad Five.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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Uber crisis shows power of social media

If allegations by a former Uber engineer are true — and they ring that way — the ride-sharing company has a problem for tolerating sexual harassment.

The response by Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick was strong, and hiring former Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the allegations was a smart move.Image result for susan fowler uber

 

But the real attention getter here — again — is the power of one person on social media.

As The New York Times reported, “The engineer, Susan Fowler, [right] said that she was sexually harassed by her direct supervisor during her time at Uber and that after she reported those claims to the human resources department, they were ignored. She gave her account in a lengthy post on her personal blog on Sunday.”

What’s this actually saying?

That when she worked at Uber, Fowler went to her HR department and complained about her supervisor. She received no relief. But now, as an ex-Uber employee, she wrote a blog post about her experiences and the world sat up and noticed. Kalanick responded fast and furious.

And Fowler patched in to national angst and anger about sexual harassment in the workplace, especially in Silicon Valley, where male-dominated engineering companies abound.

The greater lesson here is that one employee, going public on social media, can bring a company to its knees — whether the social posts are true or not.

Companies and organizations that fail to grasp that reality play games with their future and stock price. What Fowler could not achieve as an employee — ridiculous as it is to contemplate in retrospect — she turned into a groundswell of action as a blogger.

Think about that.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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Turning from crisis to proactivity

Twelve days into the Trump presidency, it might be useful to turn from what many see as multiple crises to … proactivity.

Indeed, proactivity is often the inoculation for crisis.

Today we commend the Boy Scouts of America and USA Football for identifying their potential challenges in advance and getting out ahead of them — before they become debilitating crises.

The Boy Scouts, roundly criticized for many years for blocking gay scoutmasers and gay boy scouts, announced this week that transgender members of both groups would be welcome. Amid the cacophony generated by the president’s tweets and the White House edict machine — was any other U.S. Supreme Court nominee named on prime time television? — the Boy Scouts smartly moved to thwart a fight.

Agreeing with the decision or not is beside the point of this discussion. That the Boy Scouts identified a potential minefield, studied the issue, made the decision and announced it starkly contrasts with its earlier dustup over gay scouts.

In a similar move, USA Football, the governing body for football leagues with players 13 and under, changed its rules. The rules are designed to limit or even end injuries and hard hits, especially those that cause concussions.

Purists critical of both decisions nonetheless have to admire the willingness to change, to grow, to listen.

For youth football, the changes may also be a concession to sustainability. Fewer parents than in recent decades are permitting their children to play football, as it’s currently constituted. But seeing a decline in participation and doing something to stem it can often be parallel rail lines that never meet in stubborn organizations.

No doubt, critics of both will cite tradition and toughness and rue “political correctness.” But from a reputation-management point of view, these two organizations listened, acted smartly and should benefit.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Senior Vice President/Managing Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at mowerpr.com/crisisready. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

 

 

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