Taking its place in the annals of public-relations disasters, yet another CEO — this time, United Airlines Oscar Munoz, incidentally recently named Communicator of the Year by PR Week — finds himself in the hot seat.
Bumbling along in ever-shifting statements, Munoz finally apologized for a passenger dragged off a flight leaving Chicago for Louisville. His face bloodied and his glasses askew, Dr. David Dao’s plight was videotaped for all the world to see via social media.
Not learning its lesson on the power of social media just weeks before when two teenagers in leggings were not allowed to board because it violated a “buddy pass” dress code, the company first stated that policies were in place that, of course, justified the actions in both incidents.
The problem, Munoz finally discovered, is that all the policies, titles and advanced degrees in the world do not substitute for understanding the emotional reactions of individuals frustrated by our increasingly information-bombarded world.
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With daily visual displays in video and photos of unfairness in the world, Dao has the distinction — for this brief moment of his trial and tribulation — of becoming everyman and everywoman.
All Munoz managed to do was bring to the conscious level what we all have been thinking for a long time: We are being gouged. Whether, and in what manner, “bumping” paying customers is justifiable in a capitalist system, we become, when confronted with this horrific optic, the protagonist in the movie “Network.” Flinging open his office window, our everyman broadcaster shouts at the top of his lungs: “We’re not going to take it anymore.”
United gave us yet another license to be outraged.
And so, as happens so often in the aftermath of such incidents, Munoz eventually apologized. But, as Jeremy Robinson-Leon, a principal at the corporate public-relations firm Group Gordon, said in the New York Times about apologies following colossal foot-in-the-mouth gaffes: “The back against-the-wall, through-gritted teeth apology isn’t generally a winning strategy.”
What should CEOs in this situation do?
▪ Understand that the world has changed. Corporate America must awaken to how ordinary people live and just how eager we are to be relevant in a world that diminishes our dignity and threatens our very being. We grab the abundant outlets now available to us to express outrage. We are the CEO for one brief shining moment.
▪ Understand that policies are important and necessary but must be constantly reviewed for relevance. Moreover, the most important policy is to embrace training and education for all employees, from the CEO to the gatekeepers, the pilots and attendants. Those policies should promote human dignity above all else. If these policies were absent or not adhered to, we don’t know. But, we know that the problem could have been resolved ahead of the dragging.
▪ Adopt the mantra of the “three H’s” in preventing and handling a crisis: honesty, humility and enough (c)hutzpah to respond immediately with, “Hey, this should not happen the way it did. We are sorry for the emotional turmoil and we are looking into the situation to make sure it never happens again.”
▪ Realize that at the point Dao was dragged down the aisle, the “bumping” policies went out the window. Don’t try to explain a policy that justifies this action. Of course, apologizing appropriately in the first place could have avoided the headache. But, after blowing it in the first place, focus on making it right and restoring your reputation.
▪ Begin in earnest to review policies that brought this issue to this dismal ending. Convene others who have similar policies and take the lead on solving this customer-service problem.
Don’t end up with a Tony Haywood moment, when the BP CEO uttered those famous words, “I want my life back,” following the oil spill disaster. Lost forever was the opportunity to explain all the considerable efforts BP was making to do the right thing. Instead, the company toiled over the next few years to restore a reputation that was torpedoed in an instant.
Alan Stein and Sylvia Lovely of SteinGroup, LLC in Lexington handle crisis communications.