Lots has been said about how United Airlines mishandled violently dragging a passenger from an overbooked flight. And none of it is good. Yet, make no mistake, how United CEO Oscar Munoz communicated with his company’s employees immediately following the incident did not do anything to make it any better.
So, what can you and your company learn from this public relations nightmare? What you say to your employees matters, a lot. Your employees are your brand ambassadors. Employees should be your best resource to spread the good word about your company. Moreover, they are usually more than willing to do so. How you communicate with them instructs how they deliver that message.
More importantly, you cannot assume what you tell your employee will remain within the four walls of your company. For better or for worse, we live in a viral society. Everything we write, say, and do is likely to end up on the internet. This story became a story because passengers took out their phones, recorded video, and posted it across social web as quickly as they could. Just as quickly, Munoz’s tone deaf and insensitive statement to his employees also went viral. And he made a bad situation that much worse.
What if, however, instead of calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent” (among other mistakes), Munoz wrote something like the following?
Dear United employees:
By now we’ve all seen the disturbing video of a United customer being forcibly removed from one of our planes in Chicago. While we can imagine the type of situation that could lead to reaction such as this, this was not that situation. Overbooked flights happen all the time, but this is not the way we (or anyone) should handle them. It escalated out of control, and for that I am truly sorry.
This unfortunate incident should have never happened, and I will do everything in my control to ensure that as long as I run this company, it never happens again. We are fully investigating how we allowed this occur, and when that investigation is complete those involved will be retrained, or, if necessary, disciplined.
In addition, I am announcing a company-wide initiative (details to follow) to retrain all United employees on the art of customer-first customer service. Our customers always come first. Without our customers, we have no United.
Should you have any questions, or would like to report (anonymously or otherwise) a customer service failure that you have witnessed, I have set up both a telephone hotline (888-555-5555) and a dedicated email account (firstname.lastname@example.org) special for these needs.
Employees, our slogan is, and shall remain, “Fly the friendly skies.” Let’s do everything in our power to live that slogan in everything that we do.
Crisis over, right?
This post originally appeared on the Ohio Employer’s Law Blog, and was written by Jon Hyman, Partner, Meyers, Roman, Friedberg & Lewis. Jon can be reached at via email at email@example.com, via telephone at 216-831-0042, on LinkedIn, and on Twitter.