It was the scream heard around the world: A 69-year-old doctor yanked out of his seat on an overbooked flight, manhandled, and dragged off the plane by the airport police. As is now the norm, passengers whipped out their cell phones and filmed the incident like good citizen reporters.

Within hours, United was confronting a public relations nightmare. The images shared on social media were red meat to consumers, primed by personal experience to have a negative opinion of airlines in general.

As with the recent Uber scandals, consumers threatened to boycott the company and delete their United App, according to MarketWatch. Then came CEO's apology, for "having to re-accommodate these customers." This apology is about a common airline practice, not one man's shocking experience. The statement ignores his obvious injuries. For consumers, the issue is not the possibility of getting bumped, something frequent flyers have come to expect. The real fear is the possibility of getting abused, humiliated, and hauled off the plane.

What's more, this treatment of an Asian physician taps into racial sensitivities, with some people wondering whether police would have been as rough on a Caucasian senior. An event this extreme calls for a filmed apology, with the CEO directly addressing the incident, and his customers.

What should United have done? The basic tenets of crisis management listed below can help you contain a crisis and even turn a loss into a win:

Forecast risk

Neglecting to forecast risk is naive. A misperception can devolve into a major incident overnight. Silence makes room for rumor, innuendo, and bad press to fill the void, turning a small issue into a major brand blunder.

The outrage regarding the violent removal of this passenger was the second social media misstep for United in last two weeks, according to the New York Times. On March 26, 2017, two girls were barred from a flight because they were wearing leggings, which the company said violated its dress code. This incident stirred online vitriol for the airline and was a popular trending hashtag: #LeggingsGate. With a PR crisis in its not so distant past, United should have been better prepared to respond to its latest debacle, especially given the expected uptick in travelers over Spring Break.

Create a crisis response team

As an expert in crisis response, I can't overstate the importance of a crisis response team. Make sure you have the following people in place:

  • A public relations professional with crisis communications expertise. Put this person on speed dial.
  • An attorney with experience in PR issues. In United case, the apology issued may protect the company from a lawsuit, but it doesn't protect it from being judged in the court of public opinion.
  • A pre-selected group of trusted customers. Getting select customers involved in advance will flatter them and make them more likely to come through for you in a crisis. A group of frequent fliers could have let United know how badly their apology missed the mark.

Get on social media

Up to 65 percent of companies have embraced social medial to engage customers, but this effort remains mostly one-sided. Your social media should establish trust through an ongoing dialog.

When a crisis occurs -- and they inevitably do -- you can expect to field nasty comments, an onslaught of blog posts, and mainstream media attention. You must respond to digital consumers within three hours after an incident so they know you're listening. Remain silent or completely ignore people's concerns about the issue at hand and the backlash can be unforgiving.

Traditional media matters

Controversy sells. Remember that reporters and producers actively listen to social media platforms to see what's trending. If a social post on a big brand gets a lot of traction, traditional media will investigate and broadcast it to their readers. Be transparent and proactive so people don't draw their own negative conclusions. Address the issue head on and offer a way for people to reach out to you directly with questions and concerns.

Train your team

Your customers may not always be right, but they should be treated with respect. Your staff needs to be trained to treat all customers, however rude or unruly in a calm, courteous matter.

Don't keep employees in the dark

Employees are often the last to know about a crisis. Reporters take advantage of this to garner information the executive staff and PR team won't share. They'll ask an employee about a crisis issue and whatever that person says suddenly becomes your company's statement. It's your job to keep your employees and other stakeholders informed.

Be prepared

Ultimately, the smartest thing you can do is take a tip from the boy scouts and be prepared! Like most airlines today, United routinely overbooks their flights. In choosing to do business this way, United set itself up for customer resentment, resistance, and rejection. The more you do necessary crisis scenario planning - and work out problems in advance - the better you, and your business, will weather the next crisis.

Published on: Apr 11, 2017