Ethics and reputation are valuable for any business; employees want to work for a business where they feel secure and valued; suppliers want a partner who is reliable and trustworthy; and consumers want to purchase from a company who has their best interests at heart.
As a PR agency, reinforcing and communicating our clients’ values is a vital feature of our day-to-day work. Highlighting the corporate social responsibility of our clients is at the forefront of our minds whether it is promoting employees’ achievements or celebrating charity fundraising and local community works.
Ultimately, however, these would remain as little more than hollow platitudes if these ‘values’ remain as words on a page. If employees operate in poor working conditions, if customers are provided with a substandard service or if suppliers are treated poorly, then brand building is a largely irrelevant exercise.
Earlier this year United Airlines were the subject of one of the highest profile PR disasters in recent years. Notwithstanding the ethical implications of the incident, it was also a consummate example of where a business can catastrophically misread the potential for severe damage to their brand and business.
By first responding with an ‘apology’, speaking of the need of “having to re-accommodate…customers”, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, proceeded to inflame the situation by attempting to blame the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” adding that, “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this”.
At best, these responses could be excused as an indication of a company where systematic, corporate communications have become too ingrained, restricting the flexibility necessary to adapt in the digital age where social media provides instant news and can often be unforgiving.
This would be too generous, however. By attempting to shift the blame onto one of their customers, United Airlines not only added fuel to this PR nightmare, but also betrayed the notion that the company was ethically sound, arguably a far more long-lasting and damaging resultant of this incident.
Ironically, just a month previously, Mr Munoz, was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by the magazine PRWeek.
If a company was to learn anything from the example of United Airlines it would be this:
Social media is now a major player in influencing and shaping public perception – the real-time footage of the incident spread rapidly and completely undermined the push back from Munoz that the passenger was somehow to blame. If the truth is there for all to see, do not try and put a false narrative into play.
Show genuine contrition – companies do make mistakes. However, that does not excuse a business for failing to properly acknowledge and apologise for incidents for which they are responsible. Should an incident occur, act quickly and apologise.
Have a crisis management strategy and stick to it – what was particularly astonishing about the handling of this incident was the succession of PR failures that occurred in the aftermath. It was apparent that there was no crisis management strategy or, if there was, it was ignored. Develop and constantly review a crisis plan and, should it be needed, stick to it.
Avert a crisis before it occurs – what caused severe damage to the reputation of United was the fact that this was not an isolated incident, albeit an extreme one. Social media users highlighted a multitude of occurrences of United’s poor customer service so the policy and procedures of the company should already have been highlighted internally. If there is an area of your business with a clear weakness, do not wait for a major incident before dealing with it.
PR and communications can help create the impression of a company that is ethically sound and this is a key aspect to building the reputation and success of any business. However, this must be supported by a genuine desire to implement, support and improve upon the values on which the company prides itself.