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This will not be exclusive. Everyone with an interest in communications and crisis communications, in particular, will write (or has already written) about what has happened in Chicago on United flight #3411 before heading to Louisville. In short: A passenger was forcefully pulled out of a plane by the airline. The brute force used by the security staff was well documented on several videos which went viral within minutes. The reason for what United later described a “re-accommodation” was not an overbooking, but the fact that they wanted to put four United employees (non-revenue passengers, that is) on the plane, instead of paying customers. This alone is already crying out for a massive “shitstorm”. But it was just the beginning.Once the incident went viral, the airline’s public response became the bigger problem. Here’s a synopsis of what can be learned from United, and it’s a lot we can learn. Thank you, United, for this comprehensive lesson in screwing up big time:

  1. Social Media are ubiquitous. There’s no private space anymore, no place to hide. Any action can and will be caught on camera, video and can be sent out within seconds. With estimated 4bn smartphones installed worldwide, chances are that whatever happens in Chicago does not stay in Chicago any longer.
  2. 28 seconds is the average time it takes to write and send a tweet. This is the speed of risk for companies. While United’s press office wasn’t even aware of what happened, bystanders like Jayse Anspach gave a full live report from the scene on Twitter.
  3. Social balance is a valuable good. If your reputation has already cracks, the next hit will be even harder. A few weeks before, United made it into the headlines for denying boarding for a little girl wearing leggings. And the 2009 case of United breaking a guitar is still part of our collective memory. ‘They did it again…’ is the initial thought and predetermines our collective judgment on whatever United does.
  4. There is no internal comms, anymore. Everything you say will go public. When United CEO Munze wrote a letter to his employees, it was easier to find it in public spaces than in the company’s intranet. The fact that the letter leaked so quickly and from multiple sources says a lot about the state of mind of the staff inside United.
  5. A lack of strategy fires back immediately. The famous quote “We’re in a hurry, let’s sit down” was apparently unknown to the executive team at United. Instead, they did not use enough time to reflect on what this Bumpgate would actually mean, and probably didn’t dig deep enough to get the facts straight before they went forward with their first statement.
  6. A single company’s failure can result in expensive regulatory action by the jurisdiction. After a humiliating public hearing in front of the Senate, the CEOs of the big US carriers pledged to take corrective and expensive action, which was rather targetting the calm the public sentiments than to really solve the problems themselves. In this case, the overbooking policies were scrutinized, denied boarding fees were raised to up to 10,000 US$ and a call center just for troubleshooting overbookings was installed at United Airlines. All for just one stupid mistake on a small commuter flight from Chicago to Louisville.

2-format2010In a nutshell, my most important advice: Crisis communications is not about pulling a prepared statement from the drawer and publish it without second thoughts and as fast as possible. Speed matters, yes it does. But in the first place, it’s about understanding the significance of any occurrence and reflecting on the potential damage it may cause for the corporation. Giving advice often means stepping into the shoes of those that are criticizing you, and understanding the root cause of the matter.  That’s the true value a communication professional worth his salary can add to a company.

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