I read Michael Hyatt’s blog every time he posts. Hyatt, the former CEO of Thomas Nelson Books, writes a lot about leadership, publishing, building a platform, and related subjects. He always has interesting things to say.
Yesterday, he posted “Why United’s PR Disaster Didn’t Fly,” and I bristled as soon as I saw the headline. I kept bristling as I read the article. Hyatt sees the United controversy as a PR problem, and part of the reason it became a problem was that United failed to control the “narrative.”
United’s problem wasn’t that it didn’t control the narrative.
The cause of the problem wasn’t PR, either.
What happened at United was a management disaster. It could have resulted from the over-zealous application of a company policy. It could have resulted from a personal failure at the scene. It could have been the result of employees too afraid to make an exception to a policy. It could also have been a result of a long accumulation of policies, practices, and actions that deemed the customer as something less important than, say, an investor. It could have been all of these things.
But this was no PR failing, or PR disaster. Management failed here. And management failed big.
Mohamed El-Erian, a columnist at Bloomberg, noted in “Lessons from the United Airlines Debacle” that frequent fliers generally were having a different reaction to what happened with United on that plane in Chicago. Frequent fliers regularly see angry and uncooperative passengers. They see tired and harried airline employees. They regularly experience an overbooked flight and the scramble that goes on to get people to give up their seats. These things don’t happen on every flight, but they happen enough to be familiar occurrences.
Think about that. All the things that converged on that plane in Chicago, that resulted in airport police dragged the passenger off, are individually familiar enough to be shrugged off by people who see them all the time.
That’s not a PR disaster. That’s a management disaster. And it won’t be fixed by a new marketing program, refunding the passengers’ money, a social media campaign, paying out to settle a lawsuit, apologies (two of them at latest count) from the CEO, or the overworked PR people trying to plug their fingers in the dike.
The best thing that could have happened to allow a fix or a change to happen was the company’s stock taking a hit. And United’s did. That will get the attention of the Board of Directors. And I bet that United, and every other major airline, is frantically reviewing their policies on what to do in situations like these, simulating what happened for employee training sessions, and writing crisis plans for if it happens again. But they really need to look at the real causes.
In my own experience, companies generally have two kinds of issues. One, and it’s the least common, is when a competitor or a critic or an activist group or even a politician attempts to gain at the company’s expense. The second, the most common, is when a company’s culture, practices, and policies lead to an issue. And that’s what happened with United.
That’s not a PR failure. That’s a management failure.
Photograph by Chris Brignola via Unsplash.