How to cope with a PR disaster

United Airlines soared into world headlines for the wrong reasons and not only crashed their public relations but also burnt their reputation

Airlines are accustomed to examining incidents to learn lessons. This year the big lesson is nothing to do with flying, but how to cope with the fallout from a public relations disaster.

The United Airlines passenger fiasco was front page news for a week and has gone down in history as a textbook example of what not to do.

The event was brief. United needed to fly four staff from Chicago to Kentucky and wanted to bump four passengers to make room. Three complied with the request. One did not. David Dao sat tight.

The 69-year-old doctor explained he needed to see patients the next day at his clinic in Kentucky.

Dr Dao was forcibly removed by security officers, suffering multiple injuries including a broken nose and two broken front teeth. The chaotic scenes were filmed by passengers and uploaded to social media, and viewed seven million times in a day.

So far, so bad. Then it got worse. United chief executive Oscar Munoz issued a begrudging apology, blaming “over-booking”, an inaccurate claim. American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel spoke for millions when he said: “That is such sanitised, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate BS speak.”

Rumours circulated about Vietnamese-American Dr Dao being selected for his ethnicity. Emirates airline launched a parody ad campaign. A poll three days later of 1,900 people said 79 per cent who’d heard of the incident would chose a non-United airline. The affair had spiralled out of control.

The PR industry is now obsessed by the incident because it’s such a perfect case study. The impact of poor reputational risk management can be seen in glorious detail.

What are the lessons?

The first is that the initial reaction is critical. Tim Bond, group head of PR at the Direct Marketing Association, singles out United’s atrocious first apology as the catalyst. “When that story broke, imagine the change in tone if the CEO had come out immediately and said, ‘This shouldn’t have happened. We’re going to stop the practice of over-booking flights so this never happens again.’ How different the subsequent media storm could have been, but how different the business’s bottom line too,” says Mr Bond.

A dose of human sympathy helps. Holly Underwood, crisis communications lead at Access London, advises: “Be personal in your response; especially on social media the most important thing is to not ignore what is happening. If the public are asking questions, try to respond. Even if you don’t necessarily have all the information yet, letting them know you are listening is the first step to rebuilding trust.”

Words must be matched with action. The problem needs to be fixed. United didn’t get on top of the story until it promised to hike compensation for removing passengers and to lower over-booking to reduce incidents.

When disaster strikes the impact can be crippling

A major incident on a rollercoaster at Alton Towers theme park is often cited as the correct way to handle a potential PR disaster. Anokhi Madhavji of crisis management company PLMR says: “The Alton Towers chief executive was quick to issue a statement that was genuine, warm and compassionate. He apologised to victims and their families.”

Ms Madhavji adds: “A highlight for me was when he was asked about how the incident would affect the share price of the company. He responded, ‘You’ll forgive me if I’m not really focused on the share price at the moment.”

Above all, reputation management needs focus. United made mistakes early on by not getting PR officials to verify the details of the story. United then needed to apologise for the resulting errors in its statements – a nightmare scenario. The company should have realised the scale of the problem and devoted more resources to it.

The fallout

When disaster strikes the impact can be crippling. FTI Consulting recently examined 100 high-profile PR catastrophes, such as the VW emissions scandal and TalkTalk’s hacking disaster, in a report called Anatomy of a Crisis. The report shows that 23 per cent of companies never recovered their pre-crisis share level and 14 per cent went out of business.

Where there is malpractice, the impact is far larger. A financial mismanagement story generates 44 times normal press coverage levels, a cyber breach just seven times and a product recall less than four times. The public aren’t stupid; they know when a company is malicious or just a bit dozy.

Naturally, not all incidents will explode like the United story.  It was a rarity – a perfect storm.

“Business leaders and PRs are often guilty of mistaking the media’s agenda with reality,” warns Paul MacKenzie-Cummins, managing director of Clearly PR. “You can’t allow others to set your agenda and to do so could see the hole you are in grow wider and wider.”

In lesser cases no action may be the best action. “There are times when a rapid response is called for, and incidents when it’s best to simply warm your hands on the fire and let the flames subside naturally,” says Chris Gilmour, director at Beattie Communications. “Often you’ll be pleasantly surprised that the expected scorch marks don’t appear and attention is then dragged elsewhere.”

The United incident is fascinating because it’s so unlikely. The next 99 times out of 100 there’s a kerfuffle nothing will happen. It’s why risk management is such a tricky business.

HOW TO HANDLE A MEDIA STORM

HOW TO HANDLE A MEDIA STORM

“Put the kettle on. Don’t panic. Employing a knee-jerk reaction by just distributing an ill-considered public statement in the heat of the moment can do more harm than good without considering the subsequent ramifications.”

Connor Mitchell, Labour Leave EU campaign press office co-lead

“With the exception of genuine villainy, most disasters fade away: consumers’ outrage about high-profile tax avoiders, corporate bullies or those engaged in financial shenanigans almost never amount to much. Put simply, for almost all of us, a crisis exposing behaviour we don’t like isn’t enough to make us change our ways.”

Nick Bishop, Golin PR head of corporate communications

“PR disasters are vastly misunderstood. They are not quick events; they happen slowly. A couple who haven’t communicated well for a long time and have begun to drift apart years ago can apparently be destroyed by a very minor tiff. But it’s not the tiff that did the damage; it’s the prior lack of attention or perhaps a complacency creep. Likewise, company reputations usually die slowly before they’re pushed over the edge.”

Lief Schneider, chief executive of reputation consultancy SBC London