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5 learning points from United Airlines

April 26, 2017

The United Airlines story which caused reputational damage offers a number of reminders for any organisation providing a public service, whether state or privately owned.

  1. Gonzo journalism –

Almost everyone owns a smart phone with a camera, so broadcasting a news story is now both democratised and unmoderated. Anything that can be recorded & disseminated on social media can act to influence public opinion. Where this impacts investors and shareholders it can drive down value, as both Charles Ratner and Oscar Munoz will testify.

  1. Twittersphere travels –

Social media does not just democratise news broadcast, it enables visual stories to be rapidly dispersed to a global audience ignoring barriers of language. Over 3 million mentions in 48 hours signified the impact a viral video can have on everyone who sees it. It became a must-see, pass-on story proving the old adage that ‘only good news stays local’.

  1. Reaction response –

Research shows that it takes an organisation an average of 21 hours to issue any meaningful external communications, during which time the story has already gained traction. Trial by twitter in a kangaroo court is not fair but it is reality. Issuing denials while not in control of the full facts often makes the situation worse, it is why specialist crisis handling agencies exist.

  1. Legal limbo –

Many corporations respect the advice of their lawyers or counsel urging caution before admitting liability for fear of subsequent claims. This might be financially prudent but is sometime ethically wrong. Good leadership relies on sound judgement and just occasionally you have to ignore the legal advice and act with common sense: it can be a tough call.

  1. Factual focus –

Don’t try to defend the indefensible, manage the crisis by understanding then resolving the problem itself. Focus on the cause to select a remedy, not on managing the story. This will split attention and resource so that you lose focus on what you are really trying to do. You put out a fire by depriving it of oxygen, not by telling everyone it doesn’t exist.

Reputation is damaged when behaviour is demonstrably very different from the promise. Any service organisation that substantially disappoints customers or investors will suffer some damage. Recovery will usually be possible, but at a cost that could be avoided with better foresight.

Written by Garry Honey, Chiron Risk CEO and SAMI Associate.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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