Perhaps United Airlines Should Look Back to 1990 for What to Do in 2017

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

By now, you’ve probably read, viewed and commented on reports related to what may go down as one of the most significant corporate communication and operational blunders of recent times.

Yes, I’m referring to the forceful removal of a United Airlines passenger April 9 from a flight departing Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for Louisville, Kentucky.

Image courtesy of the United Airlines website.

You know what happened to cause this now sustained crisis for United Airlines, which according to this news story operates some 4,500 flights a day. So, I’ll dispense with any background.  A quick Google search for “United Airlines crisis” will result in lots of results — 2,590,000 in fact as of this evening.

(An aside: On a visit to the company’s online newsroom I found only one reference to the incident that took place on United Express Flight 3411, and that was a statement from CEO Oscar Munoz.)

Many have branded this story as a “PR disaster.” And, from some perspectives, that’s totally correct: United is getting lots of negative publicity and social media exposure for what took place Sunday.  Initial crisis mitigation strategies and tactics were poor — at best.

But those of us who work in public relations know that communications can’t be disseminated without management approval.  Perhaps more effective and compassionate actions and messages were prepared but tabled in favor of what did take place: The initial rather curt message from Mr. Munoz, followed by a more conciliatory comment.

I’ll let those with the proven skills in crisis management comment on what United Airlines should do next. But I would like to share the video below. It’s from a 60-second television commercial for United first aired in 1990.  The title is “Speech,” and the spot was produced by the airline’s longtime agency of record, Chicago’s own Leo Burnett.

Two aspects of this brilliant spot are especially poignant for United Airlines today:

1. When company owner Ben says, “Well folks, some things gotta change.”

2. When the voice over narrator says, “Personal services deserves a lot more than lip service.”

I think United Airlines could learn a lot by revisiting this 27-year-old spot.

NOTE: This video was found via a YouTube search.

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Hey Chicago Tribune: Let’s Clarify What Defines a “PR Nightmare”

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

Or on second thought, perhaps the subject of this post should be: “Hey Chicago Tribune: Please Comprehend the Difference Between Public Relations and Media Exposure Generated by News Reports of Bad Things Happening to People, Companies or Brands.”

Chicago_Tribune_LogoWell, this alternative is a trifle wordy and probably would not rank too well with the search engines. So, I’ll stick to the title above.

Here’s the crux behind today’s commentary: The lead story of the Sunday, December 27, Chicago Tribune Business section centered on news from 2015 that led to negative publicity for some of the largest and most recognizable companies and individuals in America.

The story headline: “2015’s PR Nightmares.”

I beg to differ.  The 12 examples cited chronicles news reports of bad things that happened to businesses and people, not examples of poor execution of strategies or tactics by public relations counsel during a crisis or disruption of business.

PR NighmareYou’re probably familiar with stories cited: Findings that Volkswagen engineers developed software to cheat emission standards, the arrest of longtime Subway spokesperson Jared Fogel on child pornography charges, reports of an unsavory work environment at online retail giant Amazon, and the nine others.

Note: Three of the 12 examples put the spotlight on Chicago — Blackhawks star Patrick Kane (who was embroiled in rape allegations), Mayor Rahm Emanuel, (who’s facing continued scrutiny resulting from the Laquan McDonald shooting by police) and Wrigley Field (where promised facility improvements were not delivered on opening day).

Yes, these stories caused significant damage to reputations and possibly changed perceptions. But they were not the result of lousy public relations work, which is how many readers might interpret the article. From another perspective, effective public relations counsel could not prevent — in most cases — these “nightmares” from happening.

(An aside: One of the year’s “dirty PR dozen” examples is Martin Shkreli, the recently arrested pharmaceutical executive featured in this PRDude post from September 29 on the practice of doxing.)

It should be pointed out that the introduction to the Tribune article, written by Greg Trotter, states “there were some clear winners and losers among the worst PR disasters of 2015.” I’ll interpret that as meaning strategists were successful on some occasions on helping to mitigate the fallout of a crisis.

Another point of contention centers on the research used to compile this “survey of the worst of the worst in this year’s brand name fails,” as stated in the article sub headline.

The chief source for Mr. Trotter’s report was Tim Caulkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.  I’m not questioning Professor Caulkins’ credentials, but perhaps an academic professional who teaches public relations would have been a better choice. And, it would have been prudent to seek more than one opinion in order to have a true “survey.”

Finally, throughout the article (and in the headline), “public relations” is not mentioned, only “PR.” Shouldn’t a formal reference be made to the practice before using the abbreviation? I think so.

Public relations and marketing are both communications disciplines — but they clearly are different.  Please click on the respective links to learn the difference.

Finally some disclosures:

  1. We subscribe to the daily delivery of the Chicago Tribune print edition, and I relish my time reading the city’s broadsheet.
  2. I could not find a link on the newspaper’s website to the “PR Nightmare” article, so I included a link obtained through my subscription.

There. I feel better and will sleep well tonight. Not anticipating any nightmares — PR or otherwise.