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?
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.