Guest column: Don’t manage crisis communication, prevent it

A bloodied passenger is dragged off a United Airlines’ plane. Fox News fields more accusations of sexual harassment. Another Uber executive resigns. Such news scandals have prompted a plethora of articles advising best practices in crisis communication, for good reason: When an organization is up to its neck in public contempt, it needs effective PR to help dig out.

A well-conceived, strategic response certainly is important for a company caught off-guard, but it’s never ideal. It’s always better to avoid the problem in the first place. ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ or as Jim Collins might suggest, reaction is good, but avoidance is great.

But, how can such crises simply be “avoided”? Prevention is easy to suggest but seems impossible to accomplish. For instance, how could United have known that a passenger would need to be forcefully removed from a flight because of overbooking and that the incident would ignite a social media firestorm? Well, with a little forethought, the scenario could have been anticipated:

  • Overbooking flights has been standard airline practice and a staple strategy for United.
  • It’s easy to imagine a situation in which too few passengers are willing to be re-ticketed, some refuse to forfeit their seats, and tempers flare.
  • Also, when a public altercation occurs in close quarters, it’s not surprising that passengers with nothing else to do but watch, will pull out their smartphones and start recording.

The tragic event onboard United may have been unforeseen, but it definitely was foreseeable. This incident is what Watkins and Bazerman (2003) call a “predictable surprise”: a disastrous event that can be anticipated and prepared for. Other examples range from oil spills to virus outbreaks. It’s not that companies know when such events will occur, it’s that they recognize they might happen.

So, United’s debacle, including the consumer backlash, could have been predicted, but how could it have been prepared for, or even avoided? Here are three specific prescriptions for crisis prevention, alleviating the need for crisis communication:

1. Don’t be a villain.

Long before the latest incident, United and many other airlines have had reputations for arrogance: They’ve made it seem like they’re doing passengers a favor by allowing them to fly. For instance, airlines don’t hesitate to revise the departure and arrival times of their customers’ flights, but passengers who want to change their tickets in any way incur significant costs.

Cable companies also are notoriously contemptuous of their own customers, e.g., “A service tech will be to your home between 8:00 am and noon.” Given the abundance of existing ill will, when firms in such reviled industries run afoul, already jaded consumers are only too happy to retaliate and put the offenders in their place.



2. Bank goodwill.

Avoiding a reputation for ‘evil’ is important, but it’s only the first step. When organizations do no harm, their ‘accounts’ with customers register a zero balance, which isn’t bad, but it’s not especially good. A firm should build favor in excess of consumer expectations so when an unfortunate incident occurs, the company can rely on its credit balance to keep customers happy.

Chipotle is a good example of an organization that weathered a significant public relations storm because of the equity it already had with consumers. In 2015-16, E. coli and listeria outbreaks led to widespread sickness and even customer deaths, which would have shuttered most restaurants, but Chipotle survived, why? It wasn’t because of excellent crisis communication management. The company endured because for many years it offered sustainably-sourced, high-quality food, at fair prices, with fast and friendly service, which built tremendous goodwill with customers and made them more willing to extend grace to the beleaguered brand.

3. Plan for points of vulnerability.

As mentioned above, the prediction of specific risks is important, but the real benefit comes when measures are made to curb calamities. Of course, some disasters are impossible to avert through preventive communication or other action, e.g., earthquakes, tornados, etc. Other mishaps, however, can be mitigated or even avoided entirely.

Circling back to airlines, Delta Airlines learned from United’s mistake and has decided to give its agents authority to pay passengers up to $2,000 to voluntarily abandon overbooked flights, and that amount can climb as high as $9,950 with supervisory approval. Chances are, there are several passengers on any given flight, willing to postpone their plans for this kind of payoff. Also, Delta’s active communication of the new policy builds goodwill and deters a United-esque disaster.

Unfortunately, there will always be needs for PR problem fixes. However, organizations that act preemptively by building strong brands and planning for probable calamities will rely on crisis communication management much less and enjoy a much more peaceful existence.

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