Now the dust has settled, just a little bit, on the United Airlines story, it’s fair to say that this will be another example of a PR disaster debated at events, discussed in college courses and quoted in books around the world for many years to come. Let alone the continuing conversation on social media and the array of creative memes across the internet.
In reality, whatever your personal view on the topic or the airline’s policy and actions (interestingly, speaking to clients and colleagues in the US, public opinion is clearly divided on this) as to who was right or wrong, this is another howling example of an in-house PR team moving way too slowly for a modern media cycle, and grappling to deal with the changing world and influence of social media and ‘citizen journalism’.
Other fairly recent examples of internal PR teams falling short include VW and BP, both of which struggled to move swiftly enough, caught in the headlights of a scandal that was engulfing their personal workspace. Too emotionally attached to deal with it and too encumbered by internal hierarchy to give the right advice, to the right people at the right time.
Emotion is an important factor in any crisis or issues situation in today’s world of communications. You simply cannot ignore the fact that the CEO, staff and shareholders are all, quite rightly, emotionally connected to their business and therefore personally affected by any situation that has a negative impact on their brand.
This is why it’s vitally important that brands that are heavily exposed to risks, such as those in the travel and tourism sector for example, have a crisis communications strategy that doesn’t solely rely on internal teams. It’s not that they don’t have the expertise, although that may be a factor in some circumstances, but rather that they and their colleagues within the business become gripped by emotion in those vital hours and minutes following an incident, and as a result their thinking and judgement becomes clouded.
Sadly, we find ourselves called upon to assist with a variety of issues on behalf of our clients on an almost weekly basis, simply due to the very public and outward facing nature of their business. All of these incidents are terribly distressing for those people working close by; it’s almost impossible to detach yourself emotionally when the tabloids start calling, looking for a juicy filler story for the late editions. But, for us, while these things are very unfortunate, we just aren’t encumbered by the same degree of sentiment that an internal team has.
As an independent third party, we are much more able to approach any situation with logic. We can detach ourselves somewhat, no matter the seriousness of the situation, and focus on how best to support our client and those affected using tried and tested procedures that have been honed over many years.
The United Airlines incident, which certainly divided opinion, did show, rather brutally if you are a shareholder, that reputational management is something that simply cannot and should not be left on the boardroom table.
United Airlines could have avoided the PR disaster that has befallen the company and brand simply by acting on a pre-prepared crisis communications strategy. If you’ve not done so already, we recommend you put a strategy in place and, as experts in PR and crisis management, we’re happy to advise on the right approach to take. Just get in touch.