United Airlines may have done everything right. They may have played by the book and followed the rules. There are likely facts that we don't know. But what we do know is this: United Airlines made a huge public relations blunder by allowing authorities drag a man off of a plane so that airline employees could have a seat on the flight.
You've probably seen the videos from people who were on United Flight 3411 in Chicago. And you've probably seen the aftermath of the situation: protests, online memes and Twitter posts. The company will spend years recovering from the negativity generated by the incident. People will remember the airline's treatment of Dr. David Dao whenever United Airlines is mentioned.
The United Airlines incident offers some important lessons that everyone in media and communications should remember. Share these three reminders with your team:
1) The mic is always live. We live in an always-on world. Between smart phones, live Facebook streaming and “citizen journalism,” we all live under a microscope. The world seems ready to pounce on any – and every – mistake. United Airlines forgot that people are watching and listening. People can watch – and re-watch – a passenger being mistreated. While we can't control everything, we can at least remember that people are watching and listening. Let that truth impact your decisions and live like the mic is live and that your words will be captured.
2) It's not what you say, it's what people hear. Not only did United mistreat a passenger, their company president seemed to reinforce the decision. In a leaked memo to his staff, Oscar Munoz reminded workers that the flight crew and authorities acted within established rules and guidelines. From an internal communications perspective, Munoz did the right thing: he backed the team's decision and reinforced the importance of playing by the rules. But outsiders heard his words differently. They perceived that United was inflexible, rigid and right at any cost. When they compared Munoz' words with the online video, the reaction was swift and brutal. People process emotions before facts, so make sure that your message connects people with truth and heart.
3) When you mess up, own up. And do it right away. United Airlines would be in less hot water today had their president made a public statement as soon as the videos went viral. Even a simple statement could have saved the airline from such severe backlash. Instead, United dragged its feet and allowed the public to fill in the blanks. Anything United does at this time will be interpreted as “too little, too late.” People are willing to forgive when someone sincerely admits their mistakes and takes ownership of the situation.
Use this situation to reassess your communications. Whether you're reviewing broadcast/online content of your personal communications channels, remember the lessons learned from United Airlines. And remember that as Christian communicators, our words reflect back on The Word. Shine a light by communicating with integrity.