Good PR: Know When You Can’t Lean on Corporate Policy
First, it was the leggings. Now, United Airlines faces the far more troubling charge of passenger abuse after the horrific video of a paying customer unwillingly dragged down an airplane runway by two security officers went viral. (The passenger refused his fate as one of four unlucky passengers randomly selected to give up their seats on an oversold flight.) Yesterday’s news is a glaring example of why companies cannot lean on corporate policy to defend actions seen as insensitive and even inhumane to the general public. Not only because the whole world is watching. Good PR (and corporate reputation) requires a company-wide system that upholds critical values – for public safety, for consumer trust, for product quality – guided by company policy.
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017&0″ /a>
In both cases, United’s actions (dress code enforcement for non-revenue travelers and random selection of passengers to deplane on an oversold flight) were supported by corporate policy. But to the viewing public and the media, the justification for disturbing behavior is irrelevant. No corporate policy can explain away the visceral footage of a grown man on the floor, disheveled, visibly injured and tugged down the aisle to the screams and distress of other passengers. Public safety is a non-negotiable. That includes avoiding potential physical harm of an individual and preventing the escalation of customer service issues into public safety risks.
Let’s not forget that the U.S. airline industry was founded and branded as a luxury travel service, not an automated people mover or public transit in the sky. When a company’s offering to the marketplace is customer service or hospitality, highly visible customer service failures should be seen as potentially damaging as a major product recall, equipment failure or facilities disaster. Crisis planning, such as tabletop scenarios or risk management operations drills should include customer service interactions across company operations.
So what should United and other businesses facing viral scrutiny over company policy do next?
In the case of United’s immediate strategy, Fineman PR President Michael Fineman emphasizes: “A doctor wouldn’t prescribe a cure without seeing a patient and knowing that patient’s history. Similarly, there are many factors that are only known to the client, which must be considered to determine the appropriate response. However, in this case, based on what has been made public, the following would be recommended if this were my agency’s client:
Prepare a full report of the incident, identify where the situation escalated beyond reason (where it got away from them), and take full responsibility.
The report should demonstrate how the airline will make good on this with the affected passenger and, perhaps, all passengers who witnessed this brutal “act of commerce.”
Include new guidelines and policies, and new employee training programs to ensure something like this will never happen again.
Publicize the full report and plan on the United Airlines website and distribute it to the media.
Aim for genuine progress and track that progress through independent audits of the airline’s customer service, with special attention paid to on-the-ground passenger experiences.”
For airlines and other companies facing potentially high profile customer interaction:
- Evaluate public-facing policies and enforcement guidelines with an eye toward risk management, customer service and of course, public safety. Review customer service response data and employee conflict reports for a better understanding of what is working and what is increasingly raising controversy.
- Identify policy administrators for on-the-ground transactions: ensure that they are specially trained and periodically re-trained in conflict resolution and hospitality. If outside authorities must be brought in to physically manage a situation, understand that their actions will be associated with your company’s response.
- Have tough conversations internally with management and with on-the-ground policy administrators to navigate the gray area of policy enforcement. Does company policy allow specially-trained on-the-ground policy enforcers to exercise their best judgment in the case of high conflict events? If a situation escalates, who has the final say on the visible action? How can policy enforcers minimize controversial attention to a potentially-flammable situation?
- Take a look at policy enforcement visually, just as the public or media might: Does a policy that sounds reasonable on paper look reasonable in action?