United we stand (for pretty well anything)

21 April 2017 | 1:10 min read

Probably the surest sign of trouble is when people starting mangling the language. United Airline’s claim this month to have “re-accommodated” a man who was dragged with a bloodied nose out of his airplane seat surely marked a new low.

In a fiasco that was instantly labelled a PR disaster, the company followed the rule-book of what not to do. First came the corporate-speak and an effort to simply bat the problem away, and then death by a thousand cuts as they were forced to retract and amend. If you have to get off your high horse, it’s better to do it all at once and in a single move.

At first, CEO Oscar Munoz apologised only for “having to re-accommodate these customers”. He even criticised the injured passenger for being “belligerent” and refusing “to comply”. It was only a matter of days before Munoz was apologising abjectly and confessing his own “shame” at how badly United had behaved.

The big problem is the company’s culture, which was revealed in some ways as being as un-customer-friendly as you can get. The other problem, and this is less rare, was a blinded-in-headlights panic to somehow bluster or spin a problem away.

There are good approaches for dealing with bad news. Most turn on saying what you need to say, fast, and saying it all. But underlying every good approach is a firm sense of what is actually acceptable behaviour, never mind an understanding that pappy corporate-speak insults your audience’s intelligence. The best advice in a crisis can be to do what your mother would have told you to do.

If, for example, you have messed up at work, there are two ways you can talk with the boss. One is to weave and dodge and hope the whole thing blows over. (Of course, it is obvious to everyone that this is what you are doing.) The other is to be straight up, acknowledge fault where necessary, and show how you will put things right. We all know which is better. Although, as United found, a moral compass can be elusive when the pressure comes on.

Will it affect airline sales? Discussing United’s first-quarter earnings recently, President Scott Kirby said, “There has been concern from corporate accounts. They want us to fix this. They want us to do the right thing.”

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