One of the lessons my parents pounded into me growing up was to admit my mistakes, apologize and do my best to fix whatever I had screwed up (which, in my case, was a lot). One sure way to get into big trouble was to blame somebody else for something I had done.
Which brings us, of course, to United Airlines and poor old Oscar Munoz, its beleaguered CEO. He looks like the kind of guy whose mama raised him right. She probably told him the same thing mine told me. My hunch is that for most of his life he minded her. But then he had to go and get hired as CEO of one of the world’s biggest airlines.
Work in PR long enough (actually, not very long at all) and you’ll see this kind of thing over and over again. Something goes wrong and all manner of corporate defense mechanisms kick in. Lawyers get involved. Circular firing squads form up. Meetings and conference calls are called and held. More lawyers get involved. Discussions that should take minutes drag on for hours. Group think replaces common sense, natural instinct and in some cases human decency. Decisions that finally get made are usually wrong. Things get worse.
In Munoz’s defense, his first reaction was probably the one most competent CEOs would have: let’s get the facts first. The only problem with that is when millions of people are watching video of a goon squad dragging a paying customer off one of your airplanes, the facts don’t matter. That’s game over. That’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later territory.
What’s clear is that something went bad wrong, and in those early moments that’s really all that matters. In today’s world, when traditional media is chasing thousands of Facebook and Twitter feeds, job one is to act immediately to get ahead of the story – or at least try to catch up to it. Say you’re sorry. Apologize to everybody in sight. Tweet it out, put it on your own Facebook feed, post a quick-and-dirty video of the CEO (weeping, if possible) on the company website. Stop strangers on the street and beg for their forgiveness. Say you’ll figure out what happened next, but for now you want folks to know you’re on it.
Instead, while Munoz and his team were engaged in the no doubt mind-numbing discussion that spawned the term “re-accommodating,” United’s stock was taking a billion-dollar nosedive. Its largest shareholder, Warren Buffett, was, according to Fortune Magazine, down $90 million at one point during that first awful day and finished with a one-day loss of $24 million. And that’s before you add the legal and PR fees it took to generate “re-accommodating.” Since then, of course, Munoz and United stumbled through a second lame non-apology before finally getting it more or less right in an interview with ABC News yesterday.
In the long run, this too shall pass. Some good may even come of it. United and probably the entire airline industry will have to rethink its protocol for booting paying passengers off overbooked flights. United’s share price will recover and Warren Buffett may not ask for anybody’s head on a platter.
In the meantime, though, United’s epic PR fail has generated hundreds of navel-gazing articles on PR and crisis communications, guaranteed itself a chapter in future college textbooks, and given guys like me a chance to write stuff like this. PR counselors all over the country (including yours truly) have gotten calls from reporters looking for deep insights and pithy quotes about the United debacle.
The truth is, it’s not that complicated. PR isn’t just what you say, it’s what you do. All Munoz had to do was remember what I’d bet his mama taught him. Next time I’ll wager he will. He’ll save a ton in legal and PR fees and won’t have to worry about phone calls from Warren Buffett.