Could Your Team Handle a PR Catastrophe?

Could Your Team Handle a PR Catastrophe?

11 April 2017

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If you watched the news last night – or spent an hour or two scrolling through social media – you will no doubt have come across the shocking footage of an elderly man being dragged from a United Airlines flight by two burly bouncer types.

Social media absolutely erupted, with users taking to Facebook, Twitter and Reddit in particular to vent their disbelief and anger at the apparently unprovoked attack on the man in question.

It was revealed that the man is a 69 year old doctor who, as he was dragged from his seat, screamed “It’s because I’m Chinese.” He was allegedly body slammed and pictures have shown he was left with a bloodied nose and mouth. Other passengers on the flight – which was travelling from Chicago to Louisville – are seen yelling at the men to stop hurting the man.

The footage really doesn’t do much for United’s slogan of “Fly The Friendly Skies.”

So why did this somewhat disturbing event even happen in the first place? Was the man disruptive or a threat to security?

No. It all stems from the common aviation practise of purposefully overbooking flights to ensure there are no empty seats. Then, passengers are selected at random to not fly, usually in exchange for financial compensation or an upgrade.

So, because they needed to seat four members of staff, United Airlines asked for volunteers to come off the plane and, when no one came forward, the carnage ensued.

Another point of note here is that United chose to seat their staff over their paying customers – that, in itself, is a huge mistake.

Naturally, people are developing their own theories. Was it a racist attack? How random is the ‘no fly’ selection? Why did security wait until the man was actually seated on the plane before ejecting him?

There are a million questions to be raised from an incident like this. United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement yesterday apologising for the “upsetting event.”

The aviation department chimed in with: “The incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department. That officer has been placed on leave effective today pending a thorough review of the situation.”

This then prompted another furore: Why was the security officer only placed on leave and not fired?

It got us thinking. Obviously, this event is going to be a PR nightmare for United Airlines. Things go wrong in life – it’s the very nature of business, more often than not – but it is how you handle things that will ultimately determine your fate.

So far, the lukewarm response from the airline has caused social media users to call for a federal investigation and a boycott of the airline.

What United really need to investigate is how this incident came to fruition in the first place. Was it bad recruitment choices? Poor staff training? Unclear boundaries? Lack of communication? Pressure put on staff?

Certainly, the over-booking rule won’t have helped. If no one volunteers to leave the flight, how can the United security team force someone off? Manhandling a person in this way is obviously not the answer. Maybe the airline simply had the wrong men in the job, if they genuinely believed that this was the way to go about enforcing the rules.

Who is responsible for training these security staff as to how to conduct themselves and how to make judgement calls? The elderly man at the heart of this furore wasn’t abusive or difficult. So why did the security team react the way they did?

At the very least, some serious re-training needs to be undertaken and implemented effectively. United are not going to win the hearts of old or new customers by simply brushing this one off.

On the flipside of this – who will want to work for United in the future when their reputation is of an airline who inflict GBH on the elderly?

On their website, United proudly boast of jobs in places as far reaching as Beijing to Britain; New Dehli to New Jersey. These jobs are in fields such as corporate support, tech ops and food services. There are roughly 85 posts up for grabs.

How easily will United fill these now? A huge public scandal like this can often kill off a brand.

This incident makes it clear how important hiring the right people is. If you don’t have understanding and diligent security guards, or a quick-to-respond PR team, you can find yourself in a media maelstrom.

It also highlights the importance of your front-line team, whether it is operations, marketing or PR. These are the employees who can really do something about damage control. So far, they haven’t quite hit the mark, but the next few weeks will perhaps paint a clearer picture.

Whatever conclusions are drawn from this truly sorry affair, United will need to take a look not only at their training procedures but their hiring practice. Clearly, they omitted to write in their security job ads that a ‘level head’ is needed.

Every business needs to recruit staff who reflect their company culture and values. Especially with the omnipresence of smart phones to film incidents such as this one. If you’re not certain that someone would act in a manner to best represent your company, have you made the right hire?

Perhaps United need a refresher on recruitment. Could your team handle a PR catastrophe?

We’ve written a lot about recruiting for culture fit, as it’s something we’re passionate about. If we can help you meet your recruitment needs, we’d love to talk to you.





Written By Billy McDiarmid


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