United Airlines has not had a good couple of weeks. First, the carrier stranded hundreds of passengers at O'Hare Airport overnight and treated them with shocking indifference. Then there was the heartbreaking story just a few days ago: a United flight attendant forced a woman to put her family's French bulldog puppy into the overhead bin during a long flight. The dog died.
Really, United? Again? No company is perfect, and the airline has certainly been the media's whipping boy since passenger David Dao was dragged off a United flight in April of 2017. But it's hard to see how the company doesn't deserve the derision. Every time one of these brutal, heartless, stupid crises happens, the company seems to follow the same blundering pattern:
United personnel on the scene do the minimum for the victims and treat them with disrespect.
The company issues a bland pseudo-apology filled with legalese.
The company also offers either no compensation or compensation that's so meager, it's insulting.
United promises this will never happen again.
Something like it happens again.
You can't change United Airlines, but you can learn from their multiple PR disasters and change how you lead your business in a crisis. Here are four things great leaders do in a crisis that UAL can't seem to get the hang of:
Care Visibly and Authentically
Other than the decisions that led to dead dogs and people dragged off aircraft, United's taken the most heat for appearing not to give a rip about its passengers. But caring isn't rocket science. When things go sideways, the first thing you should do is direct staff on the ground to do whatever they can to help the people affected in the warmest, most empathetic way possible. Second, to tell the world that you're personally concerned and doing everything you can, whether that's in a press conference or on a tweeted video.
Get the facts; don't cop to something that's not your fault in the heat of the moment. But when you have the facts, don't huddle with legal to parse words before reading a lifeless statement that will just make everybody mad. Be a human, stand up, take responsibility, and say you're sorry. That goes a long, long way to satisfying people.
As soon as the smoke clears, start figuring out what went wrong. United's biggest error hasn't been a single crisis, but that terrible stuff keeps happening. If you keep repeating mistakes, your customers will assume you don't care about fixing them. As soon as you can, start finding the cracks, the flaws, and the dumb procedures. Document them so you can repair them.
Train and Be Transparent About It
The way to prevent future crises is to have a crisis prevention plan and to train on it. So train hard, and let people know that you're doing. Publish videos of your people drilling on new procedures and publish those procedures on your website.