Author: Joanna Huss, Huss Group CEO + Founder
Carpool drop-off. Morning Cortado. Forbes Avenue traffic. It felt like a usual morning drive to the office. Eh, not quite. Listening to my usual local NPR station, where Trump policy talk takes the deafening shape of white noise (shout out to WESA, 90.5), there it was. The consummate nectar for every public relations professional: A long-form radio interview with an on-the-brink CEO. And even more fun, the CEO of maybe the 21st century’s largest PR disaster stories – United Airlines’ Oscar Munoz. But Munoz isn’t done yet. Embattled, but not broken after his tone-deaf #UnitedGate response, he did a kickass job with this radio interview hosted by David Brancaccio. A terrible nitpicker when it comes to food, drinks and, oh yes, media interviews – some call me The Judgmental One – I was surprisingly impressed.
It’s clear that a top-tier crisis communications firm intervened, and since you aren’t a popular writer these days if you don’t present a “Top 5” or a “Top 10 Ways” list — here it is, spoon fed for you — the Top 4 Reasons Why United’s CEO Finally Gets Public Relations Right.
1. He Stayed On His Lifeboat.
And squarely on it he did stay. You’ll get rocked and rattled by a reporter, especially when you’ve acted, well, not smaht. Munoz didn’t take the bait. When the reporter tried to rattle him with pointed, hypothetical questions, he got right back onto his heartfelt “it’s about the people” apology. His lifeboat message points never failed him. He came off as passionate, sincere, and yes, media-trained.
2. He Humanized Himself.
At one point Munoz talked about going against his gut in his initial response, saying – and I abbreviate – “backing the foot-in-butt policy was like putting my foot in my mouth.” But he acknowledged the error and used relatable language to communicate his fault, saying, “It just didn’t feel right in my gut.” That shows he’s human. And now I must mention why companies need PR firms as constant partners. It’s too easy to go tone-deaf when you are surrounded by your employees whose world is working for the company under fire. Ever hear of group think? Outside counsel – PR counsel – is always needed. Especially in today’s 24/7 news cycle.
3. He Communicated Something Tangible.
The press sniffs out fluff better than a pig on a truffle hunt. Had Munoz done this interview before United’s new policies were announced, he wouldn’t have something to back up his apologetic response. He can tie his communications to the tangible changes his company is making to be, well, better. This tells us a sophisticated firm with a public affairs practice intervened.
4. He Engaged in a Conversation.
While following his carefully crafted messages, Munoz still came across as if he were having an honest conversation. He balanced the need to be scripted with the even more important need to not come off as phony. How could we tell? His intonation. His tone was melodic and his pace was natural; he left no time for awkward pauses.
Although Munoz did very well in the interview, there’s always room for improvement. Radio offers no body language communication for its listeners to absorb, so you have to overcompensate for that. We tell our clients to turn up the energy level in their voice by at least three notches. The last thing you want is to come off sounding annoyed, low-energy, or disinterested. In the very beginning of the interview – literally at the “hello” – we would have liked to have heard more energy from Munoz. It’s a new day for United. Be positive about it while reflecting on mistakes. No one died. It wasn’t a plane crash. It’s not the end of the world.
And lastly – for goodness sake, boards of multimillion-dollar corporations – stand united (wah, wah) in making these CEOs act immediately in hiring a professional PR firm. It took Munoz more than two weeks to get it right. Stocks and consumer confidence took a dive while memes and late-night TV jokes about the airline skyrocketed. United’s biggest failure was letting its passenger policies get in the way of common sense. Every CEO and board chair should look at himself or herself in the mirror and ask:
“If my company is faced with a public relations crisis, will I ask for help?”
Tips to managing events that threaten your organization, even if they loom large
Any organization, no matter its size, can encounter a problem that requires crisis management. A crisis is something that threatens or hurts people and property, with potential to damage the organization’s reputation, disrupt operations and affect the bottom line.
In a crisis, it’s important to respond quickly yet properly. Sometimes, how people inside and outside your organization react to something that is said or done can determine whether a problem becomes a full-blown crisis.
Of course, some crises are obvious – accidents or bad products that cause injuries or fatalities, for example. A crisis might evolve from an oversight or irresponsible decision, making the organization appear inept or, worse, criminally negligent. Some crises result from something outside your control, such as a disgruntled employee who spreads falsehoods; a social media hack or rant; or a data breach.
You can’t change what happened, but you can take control to help shape the outcome.
Anticipate crises by identifying risks that are specific to your organization. Name team members who would respond in a crisis, and train them to gather and disseminate information properly.
Prepare an action plan to keep operations and communications from breaking down. This plan should include a social media policy that prohibits staff members from venting or arguing online.
Don’t react without adequate information. Identify who will speak for the organization, so that no one says the wrong thing.
It’s important to acknowledge a crisis. In some cases, an apology might be necessary.
Your legal team might not want you to shoulder blame, but you can still deal with a problem head-on and be accountable. This helps to minimize drama and resolve matters more quickly.
Your team’s crisis plan should include prepared statements that could apply to any situation for immediate response:
- “We have activated our Crisis Response Team, and we will share information as soon as it becomes available.”
- “We know that individuals and families are hurting, and our hearts and minds are with them at this difficult time.”
- “We understand the urgency of this situation and we ask for your patience. Right now the health and safety of our (employees/customers) is our top priority.”
- “We have nothing new to report at this time, but we are working to learn the facts and will supply information as soon as we can.”
Reach out to employees and other stakeholders, including the media.
Who needs to know what’s happening, internally and externally? The messages and how often your team conveys them may vary by audience. If the crisis involves an accident, you may need to identify places to gather families and the media, to keep them separate.
Technology can help track down executives and others who need information immediately, via automatic calling or texting, and allow them to confirm they received the message.
Problems don’t resolve themselves, and storms don’t pass quickly in today’s social media-oriented society. Misinformation can spread, compounding a crisis. Reach out to those affected – by phone call, text message, emails, or in person, as necessary. Let people know you care, even if you can’t tell them anything substantive immediately. Keep your cool online, on camera and in public. Be respectful – including with those who will share your story.
A debriefing after a crisis is as important as preparing for one.
- What did your organization learn from what happened?
- Do you need to change any organizational policies?
- Do your notification and monitoring systems need tweaking?
- Are there employees, clients, vendors, investors, donors or others who need longer-term reassurance as a result of what happened?
Be sure to thank your crisis response team for their hard work. Review with them what went right and what went wrong, including things beyond their control. This way, you can improve everyone’s crisis management skills.