Damage control expert on lessons learned from United Airlines mess

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As United Airlines scrambles to address one of the more self-destructive corporate responses to a developing crisis in recent memory, they underscore a useful lesson for other company CEOs, managers and politicians to consider.

Toss out the 20-year-old communications playbook, think digital first and speak in a real voice before you become a meme.

The carefully crafted, corporate-speak statement posted on a company website along with the March Operational Performance Report just doesn’t fly in an era of Facebook live videos and social media hashtags as the United’s CEO Oscar Munoz painfully found out this week.

“In this day and age you want to hear from a person,”  said Darius Fisher, CEO of Status Labs, a digital reputation management and crisis public relations agency. People hate being treated by corporations like they are not, well, people, he said.

Munoz made a big mistake when he used the words “to re-accommodate these customers” in a statement to address the incident. It set off a social media storm, Fisher said. 

“Mr. Munoz would never have used those words to his friends and family, so why would he have said those to the general public. It does not make sense,” said Fisher.

Fisher’s advice is to dump those canned answers and show some compassion.

A day later, Munoz put out a second softer statement in which United took full responsibility for the incident and promised to make it right.  “… I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way,” Munoz wrote.

Munoz also spoke with ABC News early Wednesday morning and promised changes at United.

“Do things that are modern and work in a digital age,” Fisher said. Don’t think of the crisis in a narrow way, think about how it will unfold on social and digital platforms. “They are not embracing the digital aspects of crisis communications, crisis strategy and crisis management.”

Change corporate behavior, Fisher said. Massive bureaucracy makes it difficulty for large companies but not impossible, he said. There are “share prices” on the line to consider.

“Corporations are under an extreme amount of scrutiny,” Fisher said. It doesn’t pay to try and hide anything, he said. “Eventually things come out.”

The biting Twitter hashtags will soon fade from the scene as another developing crisis takes over the news cycle. The best approach on handling those is to “watch from the sidelines with popcorn and let it play out,” said Fisher. “They are part of the zeitgeist and you have no control at this point.”

As for Dr. David Dao, the man bloodied in a scuffle and dragged from the plane, it is never to late for a heartfelt apology but they should expect litigation. 

“The damage is probably already done and the rest will play out in court,” Fisher said.

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