Managing a crisis of reputation

Managing a crisis of reputation

IF YOU HAVE a curated feed of news on your smartphone like many people, you would have noticed the slew of new stories, memes and articles stemming from the recent outrage about the way United Airlines treated a passenger who refused to be involuntarily taken off a flight.

The brief facts of United flight 3411 were that the flight was full, but not over­booked. All the passengers at the gate boarded. After boarding, the crew asked for four volunteers to leave the flight as United needed the space for four crew mem­bers who were needed for a flight departing from Kentucky. None volunteered. So a random pick was made of four passengers. The compensation offered went up as high at $800 (the legal limit airlines are obliged to offer is $1,350), Three took the money, Dr David Dao, who claimed he had patients to attend to the next day (Monday) refused to get off. United called the airport police. He still, calmly, as video evidence showed, refused. Then he was grabbed and dragged like a sack of potatoes, along the aisle of the plane. He suffered injuries which now require some facial reconstructive surgery and is planning a lawsuit. Millions have seen the videos. Many have boycotted and have called for a boycott. United’s stock value fell by a billion dollar that week, and recovered somewhat, but still about $300 mil­lion less than before the crisis of reputation, service and just plain ol’ humanity.

In the USA, you can be legally, by the terms of carriage and various laws, “denied boarding” for a variety of reasons including operational or commercial reasons. Compensation is a part of these terms. However, once boarded, those same reasons that can justify ‘denial of boarding’ don’t apply. “Refusal to trans­port” then comes into play if a passenger is a danger to others, or he, is abusive and so on. Again, none of those situations applied here. It is likely that United themselves were in breach of their own terms when they asked the police to essentially solve for them, a com­mercial issue.

For leaders, what matters is what happened next. When managing a crisis, what many leaders are missing are:

1) Smartphone culture and social media is making situations like this instantly judged by millions.Worse, the weeks of memes, car­toon, lampooning of United’s much vaunted “fly the friendly skies” slogan cost them millions in loss of brand equity. My own favourite is a photoshopped spoof Lego box called “Passenger Removal Playset” lampooning the United incident.

2) A realisation of how much your brand equity is worth.Your much-valued reputation, built over years and costly public relations campaigns come to naught from a single badly managed situation. And I am not even talking about the dragging-off incident. United’s CEO Oscar Munoz issued a half-hearted apology for “re-accommo­dating the passenger “– about the worst corporate legalese that’s ever been used recently. More, he sup­ported his crew’s actions without seeking wider legal opinion on the situation. Worse, each time United made a statement, it was clear they were dragging their heels and painting Dr Dao as a “belligerent” passenger when video that surfaced the same week showed otherwise. It showed a company that was ugly, uncaring and trying to shift the blame onto the passenger. Finally, Mr. Munoz agreed to be interviewed where he gave an unreserved apology and said what should have been said from the start.

Lesson: Candour and quick apologies are sometimes almost all that are needed in a situation involving another wronged party. Leave it late, and a monster lawsuit might beckon.

Say you are sorry for what happened. This is especially relevant when it is quite clear-cut that what happened should never have happened in the first place, and take responsibility where applicable…saying sorry doesn’t amount to admission of guilt…

3) In my experience, coaching leaders in the area of reputation management, as part of a greater leadership coaching programme, the three key “says” are:

Say you don’t know when you don’t know – but also say what you are doing to make yourself apprised of all the information and also when you will be sharing the information as it gets to you.

Say you are sorry for what happened. This is especially relevant when it is quite clear-cut that what happened should never have happened in the first place, and take responsibility where applicable. Note that saying you are sorry doesn’t quite amount to an admission of guilt legally speaking. But if the facts are quite clear, saying you are sorry for what happened, AND sorry for what you or your company did – can go a long way to restoring your brand equity. And save you a lawsuit.

Say you will fix it. Mr. Munoz said as much in an exclusive TV interview at the end of that horrible week of missed chances, and a nightmare for a PR person. Next you need to show the people that it has been done. For example, within a week, United announced, that once boarded, they will NEVER de-board passengers involuntarily like they did with Dr Dao.

In the meantime, more horror stories involving United’s wretched customer service are surfacing as people become emboldened by Dr Dao’s incident and the public outrage. Good luck United – you will need it.


David Lim is Asia’s Motivational Mentor, and best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has helped organizations motivate teams and grow leaders. Engage him with questions at