How do YOU manage your reputation?
I got the chance to speak to a large group of business leaders this week about online reviews and how to work with them. This is an area that continues to be of concern to businesses, and has gained particular focus in the past few weeks with the troubles that United Airlines has had.
First there was the eviction of a couple of young women from an airplane for wearing leggings (read more about this incident here
). Without going deep into company policy regarding employee’s and their dependents using the United “pass rider” benefit, it is a bit vague and worth reviewing at the company policy level. The company took serious public relations heat for this.
Even more infamous was the recent incident where a paying passenger was forcibly evicted from a flight, apparently chosen at random, to make room for 4 United employees who needed the seats to get to an assignment elsewhere. The video that was shot by another passenger on the plane shows this person being forced by airport security, in a most physical and brutal way, from his seat and off the plane. To say that United Airlines has taken a HUGE
hit to its reputation as a result is an understatement (a 5% stock drop amounting to more than $600,000,000, although by the opening bell the next day it had regained almost all the value, and news outlets and social media piling on them has been very visible). How the company communications progressed in the aftermath didn’t help their public case much either (read more about the “Apologies Timeline” in this New York Times article
). United now says that certain policies have been altered and others are under review to keep this from happening again. The changes will need to demonstrable and highly visible before they can begin to rebuild the trust deficit they’ve experienced.
During the Q&A portion of the talk I gave this incident came up, and I was asked what I would do. Jokingly, I said I’d grab the first United flight to Fiji and hide out….of course, that never works, but it would feel like a survival reaction, for sure! I was also asked about the, if you will, “competency” of the passenger who was removed. My reply is that, regardless of the passenger’s condition, blaming the victim, especially when much of the American traveling public is not inclined to LOVE airlines, is not a good way to go (unfortunately, this tack was taken early in the ‘PR recovery’ process, which didn’t help their credibility…). Compassion, not fault-finding or blame, and a visible and evident change in how things are done going forward, are the things that are going to help edge back the trust lost by the company in this instance. It’s going to take time and real, visible effort, but it can be done. The past may forever haunt your business, but you can claw back your reputation if you work at it.
You may remember that in 2008 United had a similar PR problem. Musician Dave Carroll said his guitar was broken while in United Airlines’ custody. He says he heard a fellow passenger exclaim that baggage handlers on the tarmac at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport were throwing guitars during a layover on his flight from Halifax to Omaha, Nebraska. He arrived at his final destination to discover that his $3,500 Taylor guitar was severely damaged. He negotiated and complained through the United customer service channels to no avail for many months. Finally, he decided to write a song entitled “United Breaks Guitars”, and create a corresponding music video about his experience (you can see the music video here
). If you are interested in reading a synopsis of the whole incident and United Airlines’ responses, you can find the Wikipedia article here
. As an example of the past remaining in the memory of the public, the hashtag #UnitedBreaksGuitars surfaced in many social media posts made about this newer incident.
I wrote an article awhile back entitled “Say What?! Do You Know The Odd Truth About Reviews?”
that outlines how to successfully work with customer reviews in a way that you always end up the hero. In it I outline a Six A’s
process of working through online reviews:
- Acknowledge their right to complain
- Apologize for the situation or your mistake, if warranted
- Assert clarity in your policy or reasons
- Assess what will help them feel better
- Act accordingly
So, the message is:
Avoid having a United Airlines moment.
Be the hero!