6 Tips for Corporate Communications Pros to Avoid the Next PR Disaster

Most of you have heard about the United Airlines debacle in which David Dau was forcefully ripped from his seat after refusing to move for an airline employee. Video footage showed a bloodied Dau clinging to the cabin wall. The public outcry quickly grew to a deafening pitch as United’s public relations team scrambled to respond to the crisis.

What we witnessed next was a haphazard attempt to quell the tension with a leadership message from United CEO Oscar Munoz that was more corporate-speak than a sincere apology: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Meanwhile, Munoz’s internal corporate communications team sent United employees a memo in which he contradicted his apologetic tone, calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent” before telling employees, “I will empathetically stand behind all of you.”

The contradictory messages led to a firestorm on social media and had a negative impact on brand reputation. Within a couple of days, drag-gate had cost United hundreds of millions of dollars in stock value losses while Dau filed a lawsuit seeking damages. Although this may never happen in your organization, it’s critical that you’re prepared to protect your own brand during an emergency. What follows are 6 Techniques for Communications Managers to Prepare for a PR Disaster.

  1. Prepare Talking Points: This should be a part of your company’s crisis communications plan. Now is the time to consider potential threats to your business and how they will be avoided in the future. Make your talking points relevant to the potential threats, but vague enough to adapt the messaging as the situation unfolds.

  2. Avoid Canned Responses: Consulting with the legal department is necessary; however, consider how your customers will interpret your messages. By the time Munoz could publish a follow-up apology on United’s site, the damage had already been done.

  3. Ensure Consistency of Internal/External Messaging: When possible, prepare employee communications as if the messaging will be posted on social media. This will help executives maintain a consistent voice and position across all internal and external channels in the event internal communications are leaked.

  4. Develop Integrated Marketing Strategy: Consider all the communication channels in your organization. Make sure all the departments, including executive communications, employee communications, marketing communications, public relations, social media, and HR are aligned to deliver a consistent message.

  5. Monitor Social Media: There are many solutions available to monitor mentions of your brand and executives. They range from Google Alerts to more robust options such as Mention. Use these tools to identify and minimize potential threats to your business.

  6. Prioritize Two-way Communication: In a crisis, it’s important to create dialogue between your company and customers, not just give a speech. Set up a webpage with a form that will allow customers to vent their frustrations, and designate a small team of crisis responders who will be tasked with replying to form submissions, and social media posts.

What we can learn from the United Airlines PR disaster is that an organization should have a solid crisis communications plan in place and executives should be open to receiving strategic communications counsel.

As a strategic communications consulting firm, Buehler Strategies counsels corporate communications clients to take a proactive approach to anticipate threats to their brand. Learn more about how we protect brand reputation by requesting a free consultation today.