Crisis management and tone-deaf CEOs: How brands are creating untold losses through introverted communications

While it could be Game Over for United Airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz, it’s Game On for Emirates Airline and others.

Upon winning the accolade of PR Week’s Communicator Of The Year last month Oscar Munoz, United Airlines’ CEO, said “Communication and communication strategy is not just part of the game, it IS the game.” In our industry, never are truer words spoken. After Oscar Munoz’s response to a crisis this week, one can only imagine his giant facepalm.

April, it seems, is the season for kicking corporate own goals. In just a matter of weeks we’ve seen all manner of corporate and senior spokesperson public mishaps, from Sean Spicer to United Airlines. Crises that are mismanaged and subsequently  inflamed by internal stakeholders are sending stocks plummeting, drastically impacting both revenue and business continuity, giving rise to popular boycotts and creating media feeding frenzies.

The United Airlines Crisis

Just a few days ago, a Chinese doctor on an overbooked United Airlines flight was violently removed – on the airline’s command – and was left bleeding from the head, on a stretcher. His crime? He was a paying customer declining to leave on the basis that he had patients to see at the destination. The reason for his removal? United needed his seat – any seat – for their own employees. You can read the sordid story here. As you can imagine, passengers and public were shocked; the incident, recorded by other passengers, quickly became viral.

Rather than taking a humble step back, apologizing and demonstrating action and compassion for the victim, Oscar Munoz, the company’s CEO went on the offensive, describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” and stating that the airline had simply followed company procedures. This, from the CEO named “Communicator of the Year”….

Cue: a 6% stock nosedive – roughly equating to $US1bn.

Cue: social media outcry and savage trolling. Like the fake image you see as the header on this post.

Cue: the media frenzy.

Cue: claims of racial profiling.

Cue: an international boycott, particularly in China, which is a key market.

Cue: a scathingly witty and on-point response by their nemesis, Emirates, which not only delivered a brilliant attack but also hijacked United’s tagline of “Fly The Friendly Skies” (with Emirates).

…And didn’t everyone have fun with the memes!

United Airlines satire

…Not to mention that wickedly funny parody ad from Jimmy Kimmel.

For United, this won’t just go away. What we are witnessing is just the beginning of  what is likely to be sustained financial and reputation damage and exposure. We are yet to see just how this impacts the airline over the longer term (it’s further compounded by the public outcry to the airline’s “leggings ban” just two weeks ago).

While the situation on-board was ghastly, the CEO’s response made matters worse; his was selfish, cold and astonishingly tone deaf to the situation and public sentiment. The fact that he backtracked with a softer statement – after the stocks had taken a tumble mind you – was not interesting to the media or public and at any rate, it appeared commercially motivated and insincere. 

There’s also a bigger play here. It’s in the context of the Open Skies dispute – a ‘Dynasty’-like saga between the Gulf airlines and US airlines. United has handed this disaster to Emirates on a golden platter. Emirates, with their relatable and ongoing campaign featuring “America’s Sweetheart” Jennifer Aniston are winning the battle for American hearts and minds. And this is a point so many senior executives fail to remember; ultimately, we are in the business of winning hearts and minds.

It doesn’t matter how many lobbyists and lawyers and politicians the US airline consortium throw at the Open Skies scenario, travelers are going to vote with their feet. If the public believe that they are going to get better, kinder, more attentive service from the Gulf airlines, then attempts at hurting them will just create a bigger backlash toward the US carriers – and we’ve seen signs of this with the recent laptop ban.

Certain other brands must be breathing a sigh of relief. Finally the attention has turned a little from them. But that’s another story entirely… or is it?

Brand Extroversion vs. Brand Introversion

Looking at the recent spate of crises, from brands such as United to public figures such as Sean Spicer, there is a common thread worth noting. At Bravo Romeo, we talk about introversion and extroversion in communications. By definition, introversion is the act of directing one’s attention toward or getting gratification from one’s own interests, thoughts, and feelings. In an age of economic uncertainty and hard revenue targets, it’s seemingly too easy for executives to get caught up in the day to day and lose sight of the bigger picture. Placing this in the context of United’s response, you can see an introverted communications mentality at work. They’re blinkered, they can’t see the woods for the trees, they are simply caught up in their own world instead of listening to the perspectives, needs and wants of others.

This is not best practice for a modern day business. A business operating in the technological world of new media must be responsive and proactive. They must be Brand Extroverts.

Why Your Brand Should Be an Extrovert

For brands, extroversion is all about forming positive, authentic relationships with customers and stakeholders. Relationships that endure. It’s about having a public that love you when times are good and still stand by and defend your brand when times are bad…. because the public know you have a proven history of caring for them and that you demonstrate interest in them.

Being a Brand Extrovert is a process that is incremental; and it takes hard work. It requires a long term communications program, not a “hit-and-run”, on/off campaign-based approach. Think of your communications activities as milestones in a long marathon, rather than individual sprints and having more granular, more two way conversations with the public.

Being a Brand Extrovert means having a communications and a content marketing strategy that gives equal priority to both the needs of the audience and the business. It involves listening to the customer, reaching out proactively and developing products, services and communications around their needs.

This is a business strategy we’re talking about here – not “just” a communications strategy – and subsequently it must have buy-in at the highest level with the communications lead given a permanent seat at the boardroom table.

The mentality of brand extroversion needs to run through the company, from the CEO to the Receptionist; as an internal and external communications culture. See it as part of your corporate DNA – because the minute a company looks to serve itself ahead of its customers, it is setting itself up to kick an own goal.

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