Failing to plan, planning to fail Pt. 1

Jan O'Driscoll, Senior Counsel
Crisis And Reputation Management 

It has been over a month since the world was shocked to see a bloodied passenger being physically removed from United Airlines flight #3411. Last week, appearing before the House Transportation Committee, United's CEO Oscar Munoz rightly called the incident a "…mistake of epic proportions."

It doesn't take a PR expert to realize that this entire incident was bungled from the get go and ranks as one of the biggest crisis management failures in modern history. In this day and age, how on earth does something like this even happen?  You certainly don't need a PR firm to tell you that physically assaulting someone is a bad company policy and is terrible for your brand's image. 

One would think that this is just common sense. How else could brutalizing a customer and dragging him from the plane get any worse?  Logic would dictate that United’s best course of action would have been to have a spokesperson own the events, apologize and detail what steps would be taken to ensure this never happens again.  Maybe a three or four-day cycle of negative media and life will go on, right?

Sadly, United decided to at first defend what happened and followed that by a tepid apology that was completely tone deaf.  

I have tried to stay away from writing about this as many of my colleagues in the PR world have already provided their expert opinions on this matter and frankly I didn't see a need to add my two cents echoing what others have already written. That said, I would be remiss if I didn't point out a couple of observations that have jumped out at me over the past month as I've watched this saga unfold.  

Primarily, did United have a Crisis Management Plan (CMP) and if so, why didn't it work?  As a major international airline, let's assume they had a CMP and that they had basic issues management protocols in place for these types of situations. Which leads to the obvious question - how did their plan skid so terribly off the runway? The easy answer is to blame the leadership at United.  Let's face it, they failed their stakeholders and their brand in every way imaginable, and given my aforementioned fear of occupying the echo chamber, I'll just leave it at that.  

Which brings me to my other observation. In the days following this PR nightmare, I can assure you that communications professionals around the world were sharing this story within their organizations as a "what not to do in an emergency" and assuring their colleagues that they could rest easy as their respective organizations had a plan in place. Which is great and to be applauded, but there is a tried and true expression from the boxing world that "everyone has a plan until they get punched in the nose."  So the two questions every organization needs to ask: 1) do you have a crisis plan and 2) will it work?