Preventing PR disasters: two critical rules

Once upon a time, mentioning United Airlines conjured the company’s enduring slogan, “Fly the friendly skies.” A few years ago, a PR gaffe on the company’s part earned it an entirely different image.

A 69-year-old passenger who didn’t agree with a gate agent’s decision to “bump” him from the flight was dragged down the aisle, along the jetway, and into the terminal.

The video capturing the incident was bad enough, but a statement in response from the airline’s CEO was so tone-deaf it created a social media firestorm that lasted for weeks. Everyone who has ever been wronged by poor airline service forwarded the story and shared their own frustrations, making the “friendly skies” the poster child for everything that’s wrong about air travel these days.

Dragging a senior citizen along the ground to free up a seat for a crew member was appalling. However, had United’s initial response been more thoughtful, they might have endured criticism for only one news cycle, instead of for weeks.

It can happen to your organization, too. One day, your company may find itself as the target of a social media storm. Perhaps it will be something like an accidental spill of a chemical that killed all the fish in a stream, the discovery of rodent chunks in your retail baked goods, or a spokesperson being led off in handcuffs because of a morals charge.

If you’re the leader, you may not be able to control the situation, but you definitely can control how you respond. You must remember two rules.

First, your public relations (or communications, or whatever you call them) people must be in the room from moment one. They need to help you craft the strategy for how you will (or won’t) respond. Their training and experience give them a better sense of what the public and the media will expect you to do, and how those entities will respond if you pursue a different course of action. After reading the CEO’s response to the United incident, I’m convinced that nobody from the airline’s PR department was involved in the decision to issue it. If they were, I suspect they were silenced by “wiser” minds higher up the org chart.

I don’t mean this with any offense, but my experience has taught me that corporate leaders are usually a step or two removed from their average stakeholders. They pay more attention to what the next tier of the org chart tells them than what’s really happening outside the executive suite. All too often, they ignore the PR professionals who warn that the CEO’s well-intentioned statement may be misheard or misinterpreted by a reporter or a frustrated customer.

Second, the PR people must draft the response. Even if it’s going to be delivered by the CEO, let the professionals come up with words. Yes, the legal team will want to review it, but if you let the PR people develop the initial draft, you’ll end up with a far more effective response than if you let the lawyers write it and allow PR to edit it. Messages drafted by the well-meaning folks in the C-suite tend to be ineffective and tone-deaf.

You must understand that in today’s communications universe, whoever issues the first words frames and controls the message. That’s critical when you’re communicating with the public and the media. Even if you’re admitting to having done something bad, when you’re the first one who speaks, you control the scope and tone of the message. If the media or social media feeds get to the story first, all you can do is respond. You’ll be forced to use their word choices and terminology, and their choices will be less flattering. When you let someone else have the first word, your role switches to damage control instead of preventing damage in the first place.

Companies that have maintained strong reputations over the years and weathered debacles like the United video typically grant communications a strategic importance that’s on a par with their legal, finance, and human resources departments. The CEOs who treat public relations and marketing as little more than window dressing are the ones who get beaten up.

Fortunately for United and others, it’s only a matter of time before some other company trips over itself and tweets a similarly tone-deaf response that moves the spotlight to them. Your actions can keep it from moving in your direction.