Wasting a Good Crisis

04/12/2017 09:45 pm ET

As United Airlines’ Oscar Munoz learned, how you communicate in a crisis is more important to your image than a year’s worth of good press. In just a couple of days, Munoz’ bungling of the case of the dragged-out passenger prompted consumer protests and boycotts, a drop in the company’s stock price, a social media mauling, a congressional investigation and (I’m speculating) the hairy eyeball from his board. It’s a good case to analyze because it illuminates some issues common to corporate crises. Here is what I’d take from the fiasco:

  • Get the on-the-ground facts, including cell phone videos, before you speak. In a crisis, it’s good to “get ahead of the story”, but if you don’t get the facts right first, you’ll end up having to change your story as Munoz did. That not only creates additional, unnecessary and unhelpful stories, but it raises questions about the CEO’s leadership and management abilities, namely: Is that how he makes decisions?
  • It is possible to communicate proactively – which is important to surviving the media feeding frenzy – while still gathering facts. One option is a version of: “These are serious allegations and we are committed to investigating them fully.” In addition to expressing both (non-judgmental) concern and action, it’s safe (it won’t later be contradicted), it buys time and it’s honest.
  • Once you’ve gathered the facts, it’s time to get decisive in your actions and proactive in your communications. If the company did something wrong, apologize. (But make it a sincere apology. Apologizing after you’ve been beaten up for your previous strategy, as Munoz did, comes across as expedient.) If an employee was responsible, discipline or at least suspend him while you investigate further, but don’t scapegoat a low-level employee if there are bigger issues at play. If the problem stemmed from a systems failure, admit it, address it and announce the fix.
  • Remember that you are Goliath, not David. Criticizing a member of the public, whether that person is right or wrong, never looks good coming from someone who is more powerful. That doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with the person, but avoid the adjectives.
  • Understand context. People at airports are already stressed about issues like terrorism and travel bans. When you hear that a passenger has been removed from one of your planes, all kinds of red flags should go up.
  • Get creative (and human). Whatever redress the passenger receives from United might make him happy but won’t necessarily fix United’s public relations problem. Munoz might consider a move like visiting the passenger to apologize in person. It’s the kind of gesture that gets covered – and remembered.

Smart CEOs will heed Winston Churchill’s line about not letting a good crisis go to waste. A crisis rivets the media’s attention like no self-serving press release can. You’re on stage, the stakes are high and the scrutiny is intense. Take advantage of it.

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