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United We Fail: How to Prepare for the Inevitable PR Nightmare

In our world, when you see news like the latest headlines about United, it is hard not to empathize with their marketing & PR teams immediately. There are a lot of things to juggle when a PR crisis hits, even more, when you are working against virality of the news.

It’s hard to resist the urge to respond to a crisis. You have a barrage of questions starting to bubble, and people demand answers. How you choose to reply to these issues can make, or in this case, break you.

The video documenting Dr. Dao being drug off a United flight against his will now has millions upon millions of views and has spiraled into a PR nightmare the likes of which few companies will thankfully ever see. United lost their control of the story early, and they’re unlikely to win it back for some time now. Meanwhile, ~$1.4B of value has been wiped from United’s market cap, underscoring the impact of the incident.

The key thing to remember in these moments is that the news is NOT what you make it. It’s what the masses make it. The news isn’t yours anymore and in a PR crisis the first person to speak usually loses. Munoz came off incredibly tone-deaf in his first response which he then followed with an attempt to reclaim the story internally (WHY!?) with a dig at the passenger from the video. Late Tuesday, he finally started to say the “right” things, but, alas, too late, sir.

So, how can you prepare yourself not to find yourself in United’s current level of hell?

First… Shut. Up.

Your mom was right; sometimes you are better off keeping your mouth shut, at least until you have more information. Your response can dictate the crowd being with you or against you, so you better be damn sure you are prepared before you open your mouth. This will seem counterintuitive in the pressure of the moment, but consider again the case of United, would a few hours more waiting for the CEO’s announcement be worthwhile, had the message been more heartfelt?

Don’t Place Blame

When you play the blame game, you lose. In the case of United, there is plenty of victim shaming happening from all angles – it doesn’t matter. “But, the guy has a histor…” Don’t care. “But, What they did was illeg..” Don’t care. “But, but…” Don’t. Care. Mistakes turn to failures when you start placing blame.

Honesty is the Best Policy

When it is time to speak, it is ok to tell people you were gathering information. Let your audience in on what you have been doing since you were brought into the situation and provide your response at that time. Walmart’s Newsroom team does a fantastic job, regardless of the state of the news to which they are responding. They may not always respond as quickly as you want them to, but when they do, you have the information you need to make an informed decision or opinion. In the case of United, the story could have been their non-response, instead of their CEO’s half response.

Last, (But, Really, First) Make. A. Plan.

If you don’t have a plan on how to attack unknown future situations, you set yourself up for failure. Yes, you can prepare for the unknown. The easiest thing to do is make a list of action items that you and your teams must work through before a response is made public. These plans tend to look like a lot of if, then logic, with the outcomes looking a lot like this:

  • Contact Primary Person A
  • Gather Teams (Media responders, SM manager, Legal, etc.)
  • Discuss situation, facts as they stand
  • Create action plan for response
    • Include required approval paths for public-facing statement
    • Include cadence, threshold for individual social media replies
    • Media response both online and via phone (where the reporter came to you first)

Not If. When.

The moral of this story is that PR crises are not a matter of if, but when. A heightened level of preparedness can take the edge off the crisis, and perhaps in the case of a publicly traded company, the edge off of the sword that would otherwise hack away at your market cap.