April 25, 2017

Thanks to United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, we are reminded yet again of the wrong way to communicate during a crisis. By now, after watching leader after leader make these same mistakes, I feel like we should know better. How is it possible that United got it so wrong?

Regardless of who the passenger was and what transpired between the airline and the passenger, at the end of the day, a bruised and battered man was dragged off one of their planes because he refused to voluntarily give up a seat he had paid for. There is no excuse for how badly Munoz handled this out of the gate. Perhaps Munoz should have stuck with these four rules of crisis communication:

  • Show genuine feelings. Express empathy and sympathy for those who have been hurt or wronged.
  • State your core values. Speak to who the organization truly is that does not support or condone this outcome and reinforce your commitment to what should happen.
  • Apologize authentically and specifically for the bad outcome for those directly and indirectly affected.
  • Explain what you are going to do about it so it is not repeated.

I find it hard to believe that United Airlines does not have crisis communication planning and training, or that they don’t have experts, coaches and consultants in PR nightmares, or that, as humans, they were unaware of how bad this was. Perhaps some well-meaning lawyers were too involved.  I am baffled by how his initial official communication was so unaccountable and unapologetic. Munoz has since changed his tune, yet continues to make missteps.

Years ago, I wrote a blog on Johnson & Johnson and their voluntary recall of more than $100 million worth of Tylenol nationwide in 1982. Today, it remains one of the stellar examples of crisis communication and response. The outcome following their compassionate and conscientious reaction is the tamper-resistant packaging we see today.

Ultimately, Munoz fails to see that the “system” or the “corporate culture” is not separate from people or leaders in an organization. People create the culture, the system, and the processes; these things are not outside of us, they are us.  Leaders own the values, conditions, incentives and parameters they establish for the culture to function and the systems to operate.  It is a cop-out to pretend these things are independent of us and that we don’t control them. Only a few like Captain “Sully” Sullenberger have dealt with a true system failure that was beyond his control. (Remember his landing the US Air jet in the Hudson River?) Even he didn’t spend time blaming the geese who invaded his engine.

You cannot blame the system or the culture without accepting responsibility yourself and for your leadership and your team.  You cannot make an apology to someone if you do not actually have empathy with them as a human being to begin with. And you cannot right a wrong if you are not willing to acknowledge your role in the problem.