Open Letter to Fellow Crisis Communications Professionals Regarding United Airlines

By Steven Gotfried posted 04-13-2017 03:55 PM

Note: I wrote the following blog post yesterday, with plans on posting it today. As it states, it is based on trends across many social media platforms. It was not written in response to a single posting. As a crisis communications professional who has had his fair share of experiences dealing with many different crisis situations, I wrote this for the good of the profession. 

Dear Colleagues:

How does it feel to make your bones on the back of another crisis communications professional? While it may land you a client or two, is it really worth it? I would argue it is not even ethical.

While there have always been crisis communications professionals who’ve been willing to jump on someone else’s crisis to market their own expertise, this seems to be occurring at epidemic levels now that content creation is king in marketing strategies.

It’s going on right now with United Airlines. I can’t tell you how many blog posts, tweets, LinkedIn articles etc. I have seen from crisis communications professionals pontificating about the United Airlines communication team’s handling of last month’s leggings incident and how they are currently handling the passenger being pulled off the plane.

These missives are just amplifying the situation, making the job of the communications team at United even harder.

Am I watching what is occurring carefully? You bet. Am I evaluating what they are doing? I am trying. However, I realize that unless I have access to behind-the-scenes discussions and information, I don’t have the full picture. I don’t know the business considerations and strategies behind the tactics they are employing. And I really don’t know all of the facts. For me to publicly evaluate how United is handling things is not fair to the airline, the communications team at United or my readers.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has the “Goldwater Rule” for this very reason. It states that it is “unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.” It was put into place after psychiatrists were asked if Barry Goldwater was fit to be president, and the results were published.

There is a reason the APA made the rule.  

How can we expect a seat at the table when others in the profession believe they can evaluate the work being done without even being in the building?

A few years ago, I developed a crisis communication plan in the event of a data breach. In it, I addressed third parties looking to make their bones on the breach. Research found that a data breach news cycle can get extended because attorneys and cyber-security firms may use the incident as a marketing opportunity. I never considered other crisis communications professionals as part of this group of opportunists.

Unfortunately, the way things are today, any strong crisis communications plan needs to include other crisis communications professionals as part of the list of those who will amplify the challenges. Sad.

1 comment



A sensitive and insightful view. Thank you.