Lessons From United Airlines

April 13, 2017

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Written By: Danny

By Dan Maier

Every leader fears a crisis. So much time and effort are rightly invested in reducing risk, bolstering safety, and ensuring protocols are followed. All are essential to protecting your organization. But sadly, most organizations are at greater risk because they have not prepared – and never practiced – to communicate in times of urgency.  I remember a friend rightly pointing out, “Prayer is not a communication strategy.”

In watching United Airlines these last few days, I reflected back on my days in communication and brand management and remembered how dumbfounded I was that few corporations or even modest not-for-profits have not prepared, anticipated or practiced to respond to the foreseeable challenges they may face.  Why?

If you polled most leaders, they will tell you they are confident and ready to handle a communication challenge. When you ask them when they last had training on crisis communication or if they have a crisis communication protocol, the answer is simply, “no.”  Do you have a crisis communication plan? 

Some believe their attorneys or insurance company will handle the communications. (Could you see in United Airlines’ first statement they were attempting to ward off a lawsuit?  Yep, mission accomplished…)  Attorneys are critical, but rarely are they communication experts. They are not paid to be.

Insurance companies are very helpful after an incident, but their role is not internal or external communications – that’s your role.  (Did you see United CEO’s open letter email to employees?  Did he really think with 86,000 employees, that his email wouldn’t leak to the press? Well done.)

It is easy for all of us to look at United Airlines and say, “phew, happy that’s not me.” But let me give you perspective. In my 20+ years in not-for-profit management, here are some of the tragedies I have personally faced in my organizations:

  • The drowning of a young father during open swim
  • The death of two camp counselors in a car accident on their way back to camp
  • A call from Mike Wallace at “60 Minutes”
  • Sexual abuse allegation on a member of staff
  • Former staff alleging racial discrimination
  • An employee alleging his dismissal due to his AIDS diagnosis
  • Alleged malfeasance by an employee

Here is my point: some time in your career you will face challenge and potential tragedy. You need to prepare.

By the time you face a crisis, it’s too late to prepare – now you have to “wing” it.  Each year, on average, your organization has a one-in-eight chance of facing a significant challenge.  And while you cannot reduce risk by 100%, you can increase confidence and preparation by 100%.

Take time to ask yourself these five questions.

  • When TV cameras pull up to your door, are you ready?
  • Are your key staff and leaders prepared to answer tough questions and turn challenges into opportunities?
  • 1 out of 8 not-for-profits will face a “crisis communication” challenge each year – do you have a media plan in place?
  • Your staff is trained in risk management but are they trained in reputation management?
  • TV cameras, newspaper outlets, social media each will tell “the story” – can you tell “your story?”

What is peace of mind worth?  What is your reputation in your community worth?  A small investment of time – two days, can make a world of difference to your organization to handle any challenge, large and small – and keep those small incidents from becoming those tsunamis.  Are you prepared? Feel free to reach out to me if you would like to talk about preparing a crisis communication plan for your organization.

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One response to “Lessons From United Airlines”

  1. John Alexander says:

    Great warning and advice, Dan…thanks for the timely blog.