Crisis Comms: How to say sorry

Crisis Comms should include a basic tenet: know when to say sorry.

“Sorry seems to be the hardest word” sang Elton John back in 1976. And in the world of corporate relations, it would appear to be something company bosses still struggle to say, even when reacting to an obvious and recognised mistake.

Crisis Comms: a new ‘how not to’ case study

None more so than at United Airlines last week, after footage of a passenger being forcibly removed from one of their overbooked flights between Chicago and Kentucky went viral on social media. In the videos, the individual concerned, 69 year old doctor David Dao, was shown bleeding from his mouth after being dragged screaming from the aircraft.
 
There has been much speculation in the press about why United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz – the recipient of PR Week’s ‘communicator of the year’ award only last month – could have handled the situation in a way which has been termed ‘brand suicide’. The videos drew more than 200 million views in China alone, with internet users describing what happened as ‘barbaric’ and ‘horrific’, and with thousands of re-tweets for the Twitter meme ‘United Airlines: board as a doctor, leave as a patient.’
 
Crisis Comms: how to say sorry

Dr David Dao was bloodied as he was dragged off the United Airlines plane. This image and others went viral on twitter.

Crisis Comms: it’s never that simple

The truth is there are a couple of complicating factors here – although neither of them should have prevented Munoz following the three key rules around making public apologies as a business leader, which I will go on to outline below.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that Dao was not removed by airline staff. That job was carried out by Chicago Aviation Security Officers – so there was understandable caution in the moments after the event about which organisation should apologise for what. We saw this confusion over who was responsible prevent a speedy apology in both the Deepwater Horizon oil spill case and the chaos around the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5. (Sorry, this is a link to an FT piece behind a paywall but many of our readers will have access to this.)

Secondly, Munoz has two audiences to address: not only the wider public but also his staff. That explains his comment about ‘following established procedures for dealing with situations like this one’ and his pledge to ‘emphatically stand behind all of you’ in a letter to them, which was later leaked to journalists.

Crisis Comms: apology rules

Nevertheless, there are rules about planned corporate apologies which should always be followed in such circumstances:

1)    Say ‘sorry’ and say it quickly
Saying you are ‘upset’ or expressing ‘regret’ (both words used by Munoz in his initial letter) is simply not good enough. Company bosses need to use the word ‘sorry’ – with ‘apology/apologies’ as a second-place alternative – a matter of hours (not days) after the event. Owning up to the problem quickly will limit the damage, which will inevitably follow. There is always pressure from lawyers not to use the ‘sorry’ word but from a PR point of view, it is essential.
 
2)    Empathise with those involved
The passenger concerned should have been the focus of the CEO’s empathy – rather than describing him as ‘disruptive and belligerent’ as in the letter to staff. No one should be mistreated in such a way, and Munoz should have made clear that he recognised this fact. But he should have also widened his focus to take in the distress caused to fellow passengers who had to witness the event. After all, many of the videos later posted on YouTube start with the warning ‘the following footage may be disturbing…’.
 
3)    Promise a fix for the future
Current and future passengers need to know that steps are being taken to prevent something like this ever happening again. Regardless of whose “fault” it was – the airline’s, the aviation security officers, or a mixture of both – they need to fly with the confidence it will not happen to them or their fellow passengers.
 
As events unfolded in the days after the story, the lyrics of Elton John’s hit from more than four decades ago seemed increasingly pertinent: ‘It’s a sad, sad situation. And it’s getting more and more absurd.’

About Eric Dixon

Eric Dixon has over twenty years’ experience in broadcast and print media. He has presented programmes and news bulletins for various BBC local radio stations, BBC Radio 5 Live, the BBC World Service and News Direct for Reuters and ITN. As a print journalist he has written articles for the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and The Observer, as well as national tabloid newspapers. Eric is also an accomplished public speaker and compere, who hosts events across the UK including the BBC Good Food Show and BBC Gardener’s World Live. In front of the microphone Eric is the voice behind hundreds of TV and radio commercials including the ‘Homebase’ radio and TV campaign. Eric Dixon hosts Media Training, Crisis Media Training, Presentation Training and Message Building courses for The Media Coach.

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