Steve Hamilton and Andrew Touhy
In what was the airline video shown around the world that generated a grave PR disaster for United Airlines, their response to the crisis only made it worse. Even as this story continues to unfold, PR and crisis management professionals can refer to this case as a blueprint of what not to do.
As could be expected shares in United plummeted shortly after the incident, and the company was met with worldwide criticism on social media.
Following the current customary practice after a crisis, United CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement in response to the incident.
Munoz’s statement, released via United’s corporate Twitter account, was hardly apologetic, drew heightened criticism towards the company, and rolled the incident into what has now been a week’s worth of front page news coverage. The length of this story’s news cycle and the potential long term reputation damage it may cause the company has yet to unfold.
In response to further fallout and criticism of United’s initial statement and management of the incident, Munoz released a second statement offering personal and company-wide accountability and apology for mishandling the incident, written with sentiments that seemingly hope to reverse his initial response.
In what could have otherwise been viewed as a genuine effort to publicly apologize and claim responsibility was only further discredited when the entirety of Munoz’s internal email to United employees was leaked claiming the passenger in question was “disruptive and belligerent.”
As is typically the case in crises situations of this magnitude, there are often few ways to make the situation better, but many ways in which to make it worse. United would have been best advised to internally review the facts of the situation in their entirety, and then consider the consequences and fallout before releasing an initial statement.
Additionally, one must assume that everything put in writing today will be leaked one way or another. Regardless of how genuinely apologetic Munoz may have been in crafting his second statement, his contradictory internal email sunk any hope for public trust. This situation is a mess, and there may not be any other plausible crisis management strategy other than one that sees United take a huge hit to their reputation and wallet, admit complete fault and responsibility for the incident, and publicly communicate how they will implement practices to ensure this never happens again.
Steve Hamilton and Andrew Touhy
After the tempestuous election, New Balance’s vice president of public affairs, Matthew LeBretton, offered an endorsement to Donald Trump saying, “The Obama administration turned a deaf ear to us and frankly, with President-elect Trump, we feel things are going to move in the right direction.” Though the answer was in response to a question about the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, an initiative led by President Barack Obama and opposed by Trump, New Balance was soon met with protests and an endorsement from a neo-Nazi blogger calling New Balance the “official shoes of white people.”
Though not the intent of their original endorsement, their message was muddled and attacked. The company met the turmoil head-on and issued a statement that vehemently separated the brand and its values from the alt-right website, and at the same time reinforced their staunch loyalty to American made products. Lesson learned.
Steve Hamilton – Digital Media Director
In a world of increasing automation, elements of humanity are becoming harder to find. With the increasing use of chatbots, it will become more difficult to separate interpersonal communication from robotic messaging scripts. Occasionally brands, companies and even politicians have the opportunity to present themselves as human, through the use of humor and comedy.
Done correctly, a funny tweet can help you connect with customers. Humor can make even the most unlikeable of people connect with the general public. President Richard Nixon had a disastrous experience on television in his 1960 contest against President John Kennedy. Nixon famously came across as unkempt and angry. Nixon used a five second appearance on the irreverent and ‘un-presidential’ show Laugh-In, as part of his rebranding effort in the 1968 campaign.
Cantankerous presidential candidates don’t come around all that often, but companies frequently step out of their comfort zone on April Fool’s Day. Bands can share a joke with their customer, increase camaraderie, and try to grow an audience. Marketers compete to get on the “best of April Fool’s” lists and get as much free press as they can.
There isn’t a reason humor needs to be steered away from the other 364 days in a year. If you are trying to avoid a staid online reputation, you can and should incorporate a personality in your online communications.
When planning to use humor, you need to be cautious. Mistakes are broadcast even faster than successes on the Internet, and can severely damage your image. Here are some important tips for using humor to effectively promote your brand image:
- Stay light hearted: There’s no need to be mean and look like a bully. A little self-deprecating humor is not a bad move, but you don’t want people to think you’re garbage!
- Be topical: Comedy after all is about timing. A joke about something that happened several months ago isn’t humorous. Satire shows like the Daily Show, John Oliver, SNL, or even South Park, move quickly and move on to the next topic.
- Embrace the target: Don’t overthink it though and let a good opportunity pass you by. Pretty much everyone thought that Red Lobster missed the mark with its feeble response to Beyonce.
- Don’t impact the user experience: Learn from Google’s experience this year when they accidentally caused users to not receive reply emails. Even if the prank was funny, people’s lives and jobs were impacted. Joke’s should enhance the user experience, not cause an inconvenience.
- Don’t do stupid stuff: If you wouldn’t want your teenager saying it on their social media, you know it is not a good idea. Mayor de Blasio is in hot water over a joke that should have been passed over. Just don’t go there if there is a doubt.
Most importantly though, do not be too afraid or risk averse to try things. Not every tweet is going to go viral (for good or bad). But make sure you are developing a personality with your online brand. “All work and no play,” is real.
Make sure you have process in place to catch something when something goes wrong. After all, we’re trying to be more human, and to err is human.
Have fun, step out of your comfort zone, and make your customers smile.