Dead rabbit shows the way for corporate PR

United Airlines’ reputation is taking a battering at the moment. Whilst North American carriers have rarely been hailed as paragons of customer service, United’s forced removal of a customer from one of their airliners – captured on camera phones – seems to illustrate a new low. That low was made even worse when the airline’s CEO blamed the passenger, before later backtracking and apologising. By then, though, the damage was done and the knives were out. So when a giant rabbit, which was being exported from the UK to the US aboard a United Airlines flight, died mid-air, the headlines more or less wrote themselves.

Simon the rabbit

PR disasters have always been a feature of business communications. Depending on where you stand in the chain of events, they can provide a useful teaching resource, a source of amusement or a reason for your unemployed status. But really notable examples have tended to crop up once in a blue moon.

Not now, though. The ubiquity of smart phones and social media mean that as soon as something goes wrong, it will be made public. Very public. And more often than not, thousands of people around the world will be aware of the problem before you are.

Which is why it is now more important than ever for businesses to have a comprehensive and very active communications strategy that goes beyond the traditional silos of media relations, brand support, corporate comms etc. Instead, they need  to create their own communications environments, in which their brands are projected, facts about the business are shared and values are explained. And this needs to be done with the same sense of urgency employed by social media users, ie warp speed. Such an approach means that, when an issue arises that has the potential to harm the business’s reputation, there is already a whole range of accurate facts and positive perspectives which provide context. It won’t stop problems from arising, but it will make it easier to sort them out and minimise damage to the brand.

In the case of United, not only did they appear to be put onto the back foot by the speed with which the story gained traction, but the company’s CEO initially backed his staff against the customer. Given the volatility of labour relations with the US aviation sector, that is understandable. But it is also dangerous. Fare-paying customers keep airlines in the air. Without them there is no business, and therefore no jobs. If the choice arises again in the future – and all at United will be praying it doesn’t – the CEO will need to back his customer, and do it both quickly and emphatically. Then he’ll have to deal with any subsequent labour relations fallout behind closed doors. It might be a difficult, awkward and uncomfortable route to take, but it is one that values the customer and protects the business – and that’s what both CEOs and their communications advisors are paid for.

 

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