Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Ultimate Crisis Communications Principle: Do the Right Thing

The recent music video posted on YouTube by musician Dave Carroll chronicling (hilariously) the destruction of his guitar by United Airlines got me thinking about how companies act in crisis.

Why does it continue to be so difficult for companies to do the right thing? In this case, United had to be shamed into taking care of one its customers. Although as of this writing, United hasn't officially said it will replace Carroll's $3,500 guitar a spokeswoman has been widely quoted saying "We are in conversation with one another to make what happened right."

"This struck a chord with us. We are in conversation with one another to make what happened right."
-Robin Urbanski, United Airlines spokeswoman

What does that mean? "They are in make what happened right?" This isn't an arms control negotiation. Why can't they say "we're going to fix the guitar?" How many people at United are now focused on making right what happened? How much does their time cost? How much is the negative publicity worth from the 725,000 views of the video (as of this writing) on YouTube?

There's a lot more going on here than a PR problem. The song is new, but this issue has dragged on for more than a year. This company has designed a system that prevents resolutions to customers' problems and alienates the people who pay its bills.

Is this how the maintenance department is run? The safety department? What about crew training? Based on Carroll's story, United violated point #4, #11 and #12 of it's 12-point Customer Commitment. What other labyrinthine stupidity is lurking around the hallways, terminals and tarmacs at United?

When I was first hired at Amoco Corporation in the late 90s, my boss, Bob Roemer told me that at some point I would be dispatched to a crisis on behalf of the company (people who work at oil companies are acutely aware that everything they do is designed to burn or explode). He told me my duty was to do the right thing and that it didn't matter if I had to spend the company's money to take care of people and solve problems. (Check out Bob's great book on Crisis Communications here.)

Over the years working with Amoco (which became BP in 1999) I have responded to a number of accidents and incidents for the company and that principle underpins every response I've been a part of. (Full Disclosure: BP is one of my clients).

Recently, I had a meeting with a potential partner on some crisis work and he said that the hospitality chain he was working with boiled its crisis management down to "do the right thing." It was instantly as though we were speaking the same language. I hope we work a lot together.

As long as I don't have to fly United.

Bill Salvin

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