Three Things All Companies Can Learn from the Latest United Airlines Crisis

Perhaps you read this week that United Airlines is once again in crisis after a flight attendant told a passenger she must put her dog in the overhead bin during her flight, despite the fact the animal was in a TSA-approved carrier. Following a turbulent three-hour flight, the woman tragically discovered her dog was dead and she collapsed with emotion and grief.

The details of this story are horrific and heartbreaking, but they also teach some really critical lessons that every organization should heed – the art of preventing a crisis.

An organization’s reputation is among its most valuable assets, and the following reputation management principles can be the difference between survival and disaster:

1)    Clearly communicate your policies and procedures internally and externally.

Policies and procedures are worthless if they aren’t fully understood.

In this case, the flight attendant clearly didn’t understand the airline’s rules related to flying with pets. This one piece of misinformation sparked actions that set off a global crisis.

It is vital that organizational leadership clearly communicate policies and procedures to all audiences including employees, staff and volunteers. This is not a “one and done” communication but rather a continual reinforcement through multiple channels so that groups have a clear knowledge of how you operate, what you expect and what is required.

While not related to this United Airlines crisis, it should also be said that as equally vital as communicating the details of the policies and procedures, leadership must also be clear in how the organization will handle violations. Consistency is key. This must not simply be lip service but must require organizational leadership following through with disciplinary actions, when necessary.

2)    Use common sense.

While there is certainly an art to the reputation management and crisis communications planning and implementation in which our team specializes, many crises can be avoided by thinking before acting. 

Most people who fly would easily understand why you would not want to put anything valuable – much less a living animal – in the overhead bin. Apart from having a lack of oxygen, the movement of heavy suitcases could easily crush valuables or animals. Therefore, this begs the question as to why a flight attendant would recommend, much less require, this woman to place her dog in the bin?

Common sense is valuable in reputation management. If it seems like a bad or stupid idea, it probably is.

3)    Be prepared.

Sadly, this is not United Airlines’ first rodeo when it comes to crisis. (You might remember last year’s viral video of a passenger being forcefully removed from his seat and dragged off a plane.) So, it really comes as no surprise that United was quick to release a statement and assure the public it was doing an investigation to determine what happened.

We often tell our clients that crisis happens. Sometimes it is self-inflicted and other times it is out of your control. Still, no matter how big or small, prominent or unknown, careful or reckless your company, organization or ministry is, crisis will happen. In the end, it is how you plan for and react that makes the difference in the resulting impact.

For this reason, every organization should have a comprehensive crisis communications plan prepared and ready to implement. In highly emotional situations that threaten long-term damage, good decision-making must be calm, informed and detached. When a plan is in place, an organization is much more likely to be able to react rationally and wisely.

Crises happen; crisis management is planned and practiced. Take steps now to ensure your organization doesn’t get caught flat-footed.