What We Learn from United Airlines?

The recent incident at United Airlines of dragging a paying “bumped” customer off an airliner provides learning lessons for any organization that operates in the public space. Beyond an airliner and a passenger, what can we as community college representatives learn?

  • We can acknowledge that the world has changed. Entities from corporations to high education institutions must awaken to how ordinary people – our constituents — are eager to be relevant in a world that diminishes our dignity and threatens our very being. A moment arrives and we grab the microphone of the abundant social media outlets now available to express outrage. We are the President for one brief shining moment.
  • Understand that policies are important and necessary but must be constantly reviewed for relevance in the world of today. Moreover, the most important often overlooked policy lies in training and education for all employees from the President to the Janitors. Those policies should promote human dignity above all else. In this way, we can often PREVENT the disaster United has suffered and which it must spend full time for the foreseeable future rehabilitating its reputation.
  • As a part of your culture of Prevention, remember the three fundamental H’s in preventing and handling a crisis — Honesty, Humility and (ch)Hutzpah. If, despite your best efforts to prevent catastrophe, it happens, 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.” PERIOD.
  • Don’t revert to robotic spokesperson language when you are caught with your pants down. Just as it was clear Dr. Dao was drug down the aisle, policy-speak went out the window. Don’t try to explain to me a policy that justifies this action. You must now focus on making it right and restoring your reputation.
  • When a crucible of this magnitudes descends upon you, make sure a real person – the CEO or President – takes the “stand.” As has been stated, “While a crisis may strike at the heart of a corporation or family, it is always an individual who must have the heart – and the courage – to respond.” (Steven Fink, “Crisis Management, Planning for the Inevitable.”
  • Be willing to take the lead. Convene your fellows to review policies and determine whether they work or not and whether they have kept pace with the times. The sobering moment of self-reflection that leads to growth recognizes the needs of customers – something to which we often pay only lip service.
  • Don’t whine and don’t complain; as it is often said – “it is what it is” – don’t lament – just get busy and solve the problem.  

Those of us in the business of advising clients in the field of crisis communications often meet this challenge as we are shoo’ed away – “we have policies that cover that. We don’t need crisis communications help.” Perhaps it is time to get real — rethink policies, educational efforts and enter the brave new world of public relations 2.0.

Contact RGS Solutions for your crisis communications needs.


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