By now, practically a large part of the connected world may have read or viewed the incident at United Airlines Flight 3411 that happened in early April 2017.

It was a terrible incident that demeaned the dignity of a passenger and caused the social connected world to become irate that such a humiliating incident actually happened, and could potentially affect every traveler. The online discussion was immense, and the damage to the airline brand was deemed serious and to some, even irreparable as there was ample competition in the aviation world, and paying customers ALWAYS have a choice to walk with their wallets.

This video sparked the uproar worldwide. The flight was first thought to be “oversold” although it was later found out that the 4 seats needed were for the airline’s own employees, which complicated the incident. The passenger was injured, including losing two front teeth, a broken nose, and concussion. An opinion piece by law professor Jens David Ohlin pointed out some interesting perspectives about the legality of the incident, although there are dissenting views, although it is interesting to read the airlines’ own “Contract of Carriage” under Rule 25 (Google it). The incident was exacerbated by the airline’s leader through a series of PR and/or social media blunders, who ironically was a recent winner in “communications”.

To add insult to injury, the 4 crew who displaced the 4 passengers from Flight 3411, could easily have traveled by other carriers, or even drove. It would have taken them just 4 hours or so to reach Louisville from Chicago.

Four days after the grave incident and some PR blunders later, UA changed its policy such that its crew had to be booked 60 minutes before the time of departure, which the management felt would prevent similar involuntary deplaning due to sudden crew needs from happening. Time will tell.

Let’s think about branding, public relations (PR) and crisis management. How can an airline or any customer-facing entity, create a proactive crisis management and communication program that would protect the reputation and the brand?

Crisis management and aviation’s own CRM+TEM

Recently, and before this UA incident occurred, there was a lively debate on a LinkedIn forum on whether to be proactive (tell first) or be “passive” (don’t tell if possible) when a crisis strikes. The majority, like me, said that we must ALWAYS be proactive, to come clean to the public about a crisis, even if the media or the public don’t know YET. There was a small majority who adamantly felt that there was no need to come clean with the media or the public if nothing is known. And we know of course, there is no such thing as “sweeping something under the carpet” because the social media “vacuum cleaner” will suck up everything and expose the dirt in no time.

The irony in the UA incident is that UA is a large domestic airline and the aviation industry already has two well-used models, CRM (crew resource management) and TEM (threat and error management) to deal with crises and resources.

Although CRM and TEM are often used by pilots in handling non-standard events and crises and to optimize human and other resources for flights, the same methods can easily be applied to their own management, just as CRM and TEM have been adapted to hospitals and other industries. In fact, our agency’s own crisis management and communication training programs have CRM and TEM built in.

So it seems strange that UA could not adapt CRM and TEM back into their own management processes and non-flight employees, including that of the CEO himself. Perhaps the first thing the CEO, the CXO team and other mid-level managers at UA should all attend rudimentary CRM and TEM programs to understand how to deal with issues.

But beyond CRM and TEM, the most important thing about crisis management is not “management”, but preparedness.

Many organizations large and small often call on PR agencies to resolve crises when they occur, which is often too late. In the good old days, not having a crisis preparedness program was not scorned at generally, because communication was slow and linear. However, since social media and smartphones came about in full force, companies can no longer afford to be passive about dealing with crises.

A crisis preparedness program is a pre-emptive education and deployment program that addresses every single employee from the CEO to the frontliner in a company. The program will feature documentation for every conceivable crisis with checklists, procedures and drills (just like how pilots train for engine fires and other failures in a flight training device aka the “flight simulator”). There must be frequent drills, including role-play drills and also online simulation programs that allow the company to examine social media and other new media fallouts. No one should be exempt from having the awareness of how to handle potential crises and how to mitigate them to full resolution as a team. Those who do not participate, even if they are senior managers, should be summarily dealt with because any crisis can be crippling to a company’s reputation. No one is above accountability or responsibility. Every one has a vital part to play in pre-empting, preparing, and mitigating crises.

Branding, PR and reputation management

How much is your brand worth to you? How much is your reputation worth to you? How much does your brand and reputation mean to your board of directors, investors, stakeholders, customers, employees and so on? It will dawn on you that your personal perception of your brand and its reputation is only a tiny bit compared to the millions of other concerned stakeholders, and is therefore worth protecting and nurturing.

To some, branding, public relations (PR) and reputation, are just some vague concepts easily whitewashed by glitzy advertising campaigns or the laborious pitches from PR practitioners. To some unenlightened people, they may feel that PR is just a way of drowning out the negative voices with their own voices, believing that whoever shouts the loudest wins.

The reality is very different.

PR is about telling the truth, on time. Those who imagine PR is “spin” should take a harsh lesson in class writing a million lines, “I will not malign public relations again”. Journalists are responsible for the education of the public, and they would expect nothing but the truth and the whole truth from companies and PR practitioners alike.

After all, you can only lie to some people for a short time, and you can never keep up a lie for life to everyone. It is far easier to tell the truth and suffer momentary humiliation, then to cover a lie with another lie and yet another lie till you cannot remember what mountains of lies you have told. Be smart, keep it simple, and tell the truth.

Even if some senior executives at a company have attended media training before, it is always a good idea to host a company-wide media training and crisis communication program and periodic refreshers. Employee turnover is a real and frequent problem, and spokespersons (official and unofficial) should all be prepared in crisis communication and handling stakeholder and media communications.

Imagine a crisis. When something bad happens, the first responders tend to be people closest to the field – your frontliners. They are your first-tier brand ambassadors and unofficial spokespersons. Yes, your frontline employees cannot answer media queries about stock performance, financials, problem resolution and so on, but they sure can help to smooth the communication workflow from the field to the official spokespersons, communications and crisis resolution teams.

We have always advocated a holistic crisis communication program where every employee is involved, and is shown how to relay information and problems properly so that the right people will handle these problems, while they keep the communication workflow going, becoming the “social link” that binds the company together, as well as the “social salve” to allay concerns and anxieties of paying customers and external stakeholders. No one is exempt, and everyone has an important part to play.

The world is wildly connected through social media and everyone carries a powerful camera and communication device – the smartphone. Coming clean immediately is wise and smart. And of course, do the RIGHT thing. Be prepared. Be transparent. Be forward. Be humble. Be authentic. And remember, sometimes we already have the tools at hand to help us solve problems (like aviation CRM and TEM). Always remember our roots.

PS – The featured image was from APATS 2016 (Asia Pacific Airline Training Symposium), Singapore, where I spoke on “What’s Next Leadership for airlines”.