Tag Archives: Sean Spicer crisis communications

United Airlines & Sean Spicer — Two Case Studies in Crisis Communications

28 Apr

 Crisis Comm Title Grapihcs.002    United Airlines and the White House are among the world’s most powerful brands and both recently gave divergent examples in managing crisis communication.  Within a 24-hour span, one had to foam the runaway for a public relations crash landing, while the other managed to grab the stick in a mid-air tailspin and get back on course.  Together, both United Airlines and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offer unique case studies on how to manage and not manage a crisis.

    By its very definition, a crisis can happen at any moment.  And how organizations immediately respond and manage the messaging can make all the difference in either containing potential damage, or creating a contagion that spins out of control and causes severe damage to the brand and the business.  That’s exactly what happened on April 10th.

    When United flight attendants forcibly removed passenger Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight 3411 in Chicago, it not only caused a scene, it caused severe social turbulence.  With the speed of a smartphone shutter button, the images and videos flew faster than non-stop flight on a clear day.

  As outrage virally spread on social media, United issued a tone deaf response apologizing only for having to “re-accomodate passengers.”  Spokesman Charlie Hobart told the New York Times, “We have a number of customers on board that aircraft, and they want to get to their destination on time and safely, and we want to work to get them there.”

    It took took two full days for United’s CEO Oscar Munoz to issue an outright apology and launch a communications strategy, but by then the damage was already spiraling out of control.  United’s stock price stalled like an airfoil.  Within five days United lost $1.15 billion in market capitalization. (Figure 1) That’s a steep price for forcibly removing passenger who refused to give up his seat for $1000 voucher.

UAL Stock Price.001

Figure 1

    Less than 24 hours after United’s crisis, White House spokesman Sean Spicer created his own self-inflicted PR wound.  In trying to frame the seriousness of Syria’s use of chemical weapons against its own people, he invoked Adolf Hitler.   At his daily press briefing on live television, Spicer said Hitler “didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons.”  Never mind that Hitler’s SS used chemical gases to exterminate Jews in Germany’s concentration camps during WWII.  The reaction was swift, incredulous, and furious.  The difference in Spicer’s crisis is in how me managed it.  Within an hour he not only issued an apology, he was on the air live with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer retracting his remarks and admitting he made a tremendous error in judgement.

     By owning his mistake and taking immediate action to correct the record and apologize, Mr. Spicer managed to deftly keep the story out of the next day’s news cycle.   As I’ve written in this forum before, there are established best practices for crisis communication:

  1. Cease and desist—stop doing what you’re doing.
  2. Apologize to those you’ve wronged—and mean it.
  3. Change your tactics.
  4. Communicate the change to employees and customers.
  5. Establish performance measures for how the change is working.

     Mr. Spicer followed the most important of these mantras in a mater of hours.  United’s Oscar Munoz took a week and a half to form a cohesive and strategic response that was finally posted on Facebook and communicated to its employees and customers.  The response issued a strong apology and pledged to customers to no longer force anyone out of their seats, and to reduce the amount of overbooked flights.  United’s attorneys also settled with Dr. Dao.  But the changes come only after United had already caused significant damage to its brand.

 

     What’s especially troubling for United is this incident completely destroys a unique brand equity that it has spent decades earning with its customers.   For years before its merger with Continental Airlines, United implored air travelers to “fly the friendly skies.”    It wasn’t just a marketing slogan, it was a brand promise.   When passengers flew with United, they expected something special–it was part of United’s ethos.  Many successful brands such as Johnson & Johnson have famously made their own brand promises part of their corporate culture.   Johnson & Johnson has a credo that dictates its core values in guiding everything from product development to employee relations and customer service.   In responding to the passenger incident, United’s customer service and communications team lost site of its historic brand promise to use as a guidepost.

    United may now be in the process of charting a customer service flight plan, but it took a disastrous grounding to make it happen.

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