Does your business have a crisis management plan? Answer the following honestly now … could it handle what United Airlines Is currently facing? So the question is what United should have done.
It is just logical that as you engage with all sorts of customers, and no matter how good you are, you need to have contingency plans in place. Contingencies for all sorts of problems, mistakes, and failures. How well you deal with these will determine whether you are dealing with a major crisis or a minor hiccup.
It is pardonable to be defeated, but never to be surprised.
–Frederick the Great
Although every crisis will have unique aspects, there are general principles which apply to most of them. Whatever the crisis, the media, the public and, most importantly, your customers and prospects want to know what happened, why, how can it be fixed and how can customers be compensated for any damages or inconveniences they might have suffered, if any.
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The guiding principle for handling such crises is: Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – and tell it immediately. State publicly only what is known, just the facts. Do not make statements that assume, guess or speculate on any aspect of the crisis.
Make certain that legal counsel examines all statements before release. Concealing facts regarding the crisis will in most cases backfire, because the media will eventually uncover them, report them widely and more damage will be done to an already damaged company. Especially true in these days of cell phone cameras and social media when everyone knows the bad stuff very quickly.
Crisis management … making United’s problem worse
United CEO Oscar Munoz needed to immediately apologize. He did not. Instead, he offered a weak non-apology, ‘for having to re-accommodate these customers.’ Basically, he is apologizing for their overbooking policy, and not the violence and humiliation their passenger suffered. He also ignored the emotional distress it caused all the other passengers witnessing this unnecessary event.
Ultimately, the bigger picture here is that United needs to overhaul its overbooking policy. If it is known that a flight crew needs to take seats with passengers on a flight, that must be known well enough in advance that employees staffing the gate make room for them before passengers are boarded.”
It is this very reason that social media is one of the most widely-used ways that brands connect with their audiences, particularly in times of crisis. When hit by complications; difficulties, and perhaps even blind panic, brands need a way to cut through the confusion and reach out to their customers.
Social media permits taking decisive responsibility for the matter at hand and laying out a clear plan of action.
So it is wise to prepare a response plan how you would respond before you land in the middle of a crisis. Note that part of the response plan requires action before receiving negative comments from customers.
Here are the key elements of a response plan we recommend to United. We will give an early grade to United on each element of this plan.
Make your mother proud
Optimal crisis management is crisis aversion. Those who take the threat of organizational crises seriously know that you cannot talk your way out of things that you have behaved yourself into. This proposition holds for organizations as well as the individuals who work for them.
Grade: F … Mom is un-nerved.
Crisis management examples … tell the truth quickly
We live in a world where the truth can be uncovered quickly. Being caught lying about your organization’s inappropriate actions can devastate your organization. Attempted cover-ups can turn a reporter into a folk hero. The payoff for uncovering organizational wrongdoing is huge.
Generally, organizations have less than a day to tell their version of the truth. After that, the media and other external stakeholders will have tapped into secondary and tertiary experts who will have their own views on what has happened.
Grade: D … Responded within a day, but with wrong response
You can be wrong when you are right
Airlines have the right to request paying customers to give up their seats if compensated. But United didn’t offer the maximum, and waited until everyone was seated to take action on getting the needed seats, Right but very wrong is a terrible strategy.
Grade: F … missed by a mile
Crisis management process … keep your cool
There will indeed be cases where illegitimate feeds of information will somehow seep into the airwaves, giving false information or unsourced explanations surrounding the crisis.
While it’s tempting to react aggressively towards these feeds by attempts to censor the information or threaten legal action, it is advisable that you don’t. Doing so could further chink the integrity of your brand and lead users to think you have something to hide.
Grade: C … no harm no foul
Keep your employees in the loop
After the smoke has cleared, employees in some organizations lament that they were not able to find out what was going on in their own organization while the crisis was occurring.
You do not want your employees to have to rely on the evening news as their source of information about their own company. It is demeaning and dangerous to discount those who will be key to your organization’s survival.
Provide all information to your staff. Keep everyone in the loop and up to speed.
Grade: F … CEO did send letter to employees, but very poor attempt.
Designate one spokesperson and surround him with experts
The easiest way to deliver a consistent message during a crisis is to have one senior executive as spokesperson. To this end, all senior executives should go through crisis communication training. The lessons are invaluable and relatively easy to learn. When a crisis hits, the spokesperson should be surrounded by experts who can elaborate on answers to technical questions.
Grade: F … should not be the CEO.
Steer the conversation
In times of negativity, social media will often be the first place customers head to – not just for information, but to give their insight and perhaps even bash your brand in the process.
Don’t let the conversation get out of control – decide on an appropriate hashtag for the events to follow and use this as a symbol across all your platforms for all trustworthy, reliable and honest information surrounding the crisis.
Doing this from the very beginning will not only inhibit people from devising their illegitimate hashtags which can confuse customers. It will ensure your brand is the leading, go-to source of information for everything to do with the crisis.
Grade: F … No evidence anyone working in this area.
What United should have done … fix the problem
Fix problems if there is one. Acknowledge the issue and communicate your solution. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes.
Grade: incomplete, but very weak early response
Timing is everything
Social media is all about timing. Waste no time diving into the conversation the moment a crisis strikes, and silence should NOT be an option. The sooner you can prove to customers that you are present and dedicated to addressing an issue; you will earn your customers’ trust.
If possible, making customers aware of a service disruption or impending blunder before it has even happened is highly advised. Not only will this show transparency and garner more respect for your brand; it will also give you a chance to offer instructions to customers and allow them to make appropriate preparations for the storm.
Grade: D- … had to be dragged kicking and screaming
Make time to learn when post crisis has passed
When the threshold of the crisis has passed and business is returning to normal, there is a tendency to want to move on, to get past the trauma that has occurred, to get back to the typical rhythm of business and leave the crisis behind. But, when you do this, you miss extraordinary opportunities for organizational learning.
The details that will enable your organization to do better next time are best captured when they are fresh, whether through focused meetings of groups of crisis respondents or through individual discussions with internal and external stakeholders who took part in the crisis response.
The time invested in examining what happened, and making adjustments to plans and practices, can pay off when the next crisis occurs, or when you are fortunate enough to be able to avert the next crisis.
Grade: Incomplete, but employees moving in right direction
What is most important is that you create the crisis management plan when everything is running smoothly and everyone involved can think clearly. By planning in advance, all parties will have time to seriously think about the ideal ways to manage different types of crises.
As you develop your crisis management plan, seek advice from the experts that include your leadership team, employees, customers, communications experts, investment bankers, exit planners, lawyers and financial managers. Each of these individuals can provide you valuable insight that could be critical should a crisis strike your company.
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What United needs to do for the future
Ultimately, the bigger picture here is that United needs to overhaul its overbooking policy and procedures. If it is known that a flight crew needs to take seats with passengers on a flight, that must be known well enough in advance that employees staffing the gate make room for them before passengers are boarded.
The bottom line
A quick, honest, full disclosure response to a crisis is the best way of controlling damage, maintaining the trust of your customer base and minimizing loss of sales, which in most cases is inevitable.
Eventually, however, if the principles of crisis management are implemented, sales should be recovered, along with credibility, consumer trust and a lustrous public image. (
All that’s left then is to deliver a trustworthy, responsible and genuinely useful stream of updates that your customers can truly depend on.
Remember that your customers are not always right, but they always have the right to choose. And when they do, they will tell their friends about their experiences and their choices.
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Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of your business. Find them on G+, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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