Oh, #United... We'll be watching and reading about this case study for weeks, if not years, to come. From a communications standpoint, the airline made many errors, but one fatal mistake. They didn't realize we aren't in Kansas anymore. Welcome to the new, 24/7, smartphone-in-hand, world. It's a common mistake that many organizations make when dealing with a crisis today. This is not the time of old when stories took a while to break, and you had time to explain and "spin" your case. This is a new day, and communications professionals need to be ready.
Here are the three things you need to understand when handling a similar crisis:
- Pictures and/or video elevate your crisis and give it wings. Today's reality is that you have to handle issues differently when photos and/or videos are a part of the equation. When I meet with my customer service and social teams, this is the first thing I bring up - every single time. If you see pictures or video with a complaint or post, escalate it immediately, and make sure your PR/communications team is in the loop. Images give everyone a hook to continue the story. There are usually two sides to every issue, but chances are only one side has the video, and that's the side that sticks. Imagine if you had heard that United had kicked someone off a plane but there was no video of the incident. It may have generated some negative press, but nothing close to the magnitude of what we are seeing.
- Whatever you do internally will be shared externally. Years ago it was enough to put the standard "for internal use only" language on internal memos and documents. Not anymore. Assume that anything you send to employees will be shared publicly. That means your key messages should be the same. Your level of outrage/embarrassment should be the same. Your pledge to resolve the issue should be the same. It is absolutely critical that your public relations and internal communications teams work in tandem throughout the crisis. Be consistent. Again, United could have avoided quite a bit of negative coverage if the CEO's public statement and his email to employees were more closely aligned.
- The old basics still work in the new world. You should still get in the basement if a tornado heads your way, and you should still rely on basic techniques in a crisis. Have a plan. Practice it with your executives and key departments, and make sure you are practicing for customer-related incidents, not just natural disasters or other physical threats - even if you work in a B2B environment. Media train your executives and spokespersons. When the crisis hits, identify your three key messages. Be quick to respond, and transparent with the details of what happened and how you will fix it.
One of the most important things we can do as communications professionals is to understand how our world is changing, and what those changes mean for our organization in times of crises. Take this opportunity to look at your current plan or to create your plan, and think of how our social, image-crazed world of today can impact your organization during a crisis. It may not keep you in Kansas, but it will help you navigate that yellow brick road.