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Albert Vilario Alonso Follow

Consultant in Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability, Reputation and Corporate Communicatio
May ; = min read

How not to manage a crisis in the

21st century: United Airlines.

Note: this article was first published in spanish and can be found here.

The size of a companiy does not seem to be directly proportional to its

ability not to get into trouble or to get out of trouble.

The last example we have seen recently with the painful incident on a
United Airlines plane that has gone around the world and has been even
videotaped by several passengers.

As a summary of the incident we can say that the airline needed to

allocate seats for four staff members on a flight that was full, volunteers
were sought to leave their seats but no one wanted to leave, the company
had to choose four random passengers and one of them, Dr. David Dao,
refused to do so and was finally dragged down the aisle of the plane by the
airport police, in deplorable images and while some of the passage was

The result of the incident for Dao was his nose and some teeth broken, and
for United a demand by Dao, the criticisms harvested worldwide for the bad
treatment of the passenger, others accusing them of racism for being the
passenger of Chinese origin, and a gigantic crisis of reputation that
caused the company to lose in a few hours of the incident no less than a
billion dollars in stock market.

The awkward reaction to the incident of United CEO, scar Muoz, was one
of the main reasons for all those consequences. In his first Twitter message
about the incident, he simply apologized for having to rearrange some
passengers and said they would investigate the incident and contact the
affected passenger in particular.

It was not until the following day when the video was already viral and was
causing a good storm on the company when he pronounced publicly again
and apologized for the expulsion by force of a passenger, calling the episode
truly horrible.

Subsequently, Muozs speech has put aside expressions such as the

passenger was disruptive and belligerent in internal messages of the
company to end up saying that he had remorse and shame and promise
that something similar would never happen again.

Meanwhile, Delta Airlines, direct competition from United took advantage

of the situation and declared that it will offer its passengers up to $ 10,000
to free their seats in cases of overbooking.

Crisis manual in United Airlines?

I do not doubt that the CEO of United can be very good when it comes to
managing an airline, but I do have a clear idea that he has no idea on how to
deal with a crisis situation like that.

I also do not know if he was advised (or to what extent he was advised) by
the department of communication, marketing, crisis or whatever that it
exists in that company, but the end result of everything could hardly have
been worse.

If he acted individually on something that seemed to him of little

importance, perhaps he should have submitted his resignation after further
events and consequences.

And if he was advised, we doubt how the crisis manual of this company
must be after seeing how the incident has ended for a topic that should not
have much relevance at the present time as is the overbooking of an
airplane, and whether this airline will be prepared to correctly manage a
real catastrophe (that hopefully never really happens) such as the one
would occur after a serious accident of one of its aircraft.

Reputation: a lot to gain but much more

to lose.
This case in question has not been, of course, the first and will not be the
last one in which an awkward and unprepared reaction ends up in a
crisis for a company or, in the event that the incident could not be
prevented, has helped to end even worse.

In 2008 United also had problems with a guitar that underwent damages.
Its owner, musician Dave Carroll, claimed damages and the company
declined to pay by saying that the claim period had passed.

The musician continued for months claiming without success and ended up
recording the song United breaks guitars, whose video has more than 17
million visits. Later he recorded more songs and videos and even wrote a
book about his adventures with the airline.

Even the competition from United, Southwest Airlines, took advantage of

Uniteds ridicule through another song called Southwest never broke my
guitar that Gory Bateson sang.

It seems incredible that big companies, with budgets and power according
to their size, demonstrate such inability to manage events that should not
happen and if they do happen should be easy to tackle and solve recognizing
the guilt, paying what is correct, asking sincere pardon and assuring that it
will not happen again.

In the last century, things like those mentioned ended up being isolated
facts that had hardly repercussion or publicity however they were solved.

But in the 21st century, internet and social networks make viral
situations and incidents in less than 24 hours all over the planet.
Continuing to manage problems as if no one were looking at means being
very short-sighted.

Just as it is to continue believing that better care should be taken to those

customers who disburse more money for the products or services, leaving
aside and ignoring the claims of those who are a priori less powerful or

By 2017 you should not underestimate the potential power of influence of

any client and, I would add, even less if he or she has a mobile in his or her

Reputation management is much more than

putting out fires.
The document How and where do Reputation Risks impact your
Company? of the Reputation Institute and published in September of last
year, highlights some data that confirm us even more that is necessary to
make a correct management of the corporate reputation.

For the Reputation Institute, reputational risk is the second risk for
investors, behind market risk and ahead of regulatory risk. It is not at all
surprising, therefore, that United lost so much stock value in such a short

Nine out of ten employees believe that reputational risk is more difficult to
manage than other categories of risk because is complicated to evaluate
and quantify and because there is no standard for risk.

If employees understand the importance of reputation, companies will be

well positioned to identify and manage early warning signals, but only 51%
of companies are effective in inculcating a reputation-based risk
management culture for workers. A company that is incapable of doing
so will, therefore, be more inclined to have more and more profound
problems in this area.

A management culture that has to be based on four aspects to be effective

and not simply go out and put out fires:

Quantification of impact. Studying the probability that the risk

materializes and how it impacts on the perceptions and support of the

Preparation. The factor that defines how the company is prepared to

identify, mitigate and respond to a crisis.

Mitigation. Having action plans to reduce the impact and likelihood of


Monitoring. Conducting a monitoring of progress process and

providing information to the organization over time.

And within the management of reputation is also unavoidable the existence

of a crisis manual, which is known by all those concerned, and with reviews
and periodic simulations that contemplate all kinds of possible negative
risks for the company.

A crisis manual that should have been correctly applied to United

Airlines. There are no excuses in the solution of something a priori very
simple to fix.

While the embers of this controversial incident are extinguished and the
company begins trying to recover from it, we are waiting for the next crisis
of reputation.

Which company will be next?

United Airlines Csr Reputation Reputation Management Crisis Management

Albert Vilario Alonso Follow

Consultant in Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainability, Reputation and
Corporate Communication,and integration of people with disabilities.

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