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Crisis Comms: how to say sorry

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.’
crisis communication lesson for david cameron

Cameron’s Crisis Communication Lesson

Many a good crisis communication lesson is never shared, or the various stages are not so public. But the revelation in the Panama Papers that David Cameron’s father had set up an off-shore fund and that until 2010 the Prime Minister himself had owned shares in that fund, has given us a very public case study. And the crisis communication lesson is that you need to get out in front of the story.

Crisis communication lesson

crisis communication lesson for david cameron

David Cameron has had a difficult week after ignoring basic crisis communication lesson

Crisis communications training always emphasises that you need to release all the bad stuff in one hit, as early as possible. Giving misleading statements or closing down enquiries will increase the damage if the whole story comes out later. And that is just what we saw last week. Here is a detailed blow by blow account of Cameron’s horrid week from The Guardian which is claiming the story as theirs.

Crisis communication lesson: refusing to say anything is a mistake

But the basic facts are that on Monday at a regular press briefing reporters asked Cameron’s official spokeswoman if she was aware that his father had set up an off-shore fund called Blairemore. She responded that this was a ‘private matter’. Unsurprisingly, this did not kill the story.

Crisis communication lesson: being economical with the truth is unlikely to work

On Tuesday, with the story all over the front page of the Guardian and running on all networks, Cameron answered a question with a phrase that can only be described as being economical with the truth.

‘I have no shares, no offshore trusts, no offshore funds, nothing like that.’

The furore continued. On Wednesday the prime minister’s office said: ‘There are no offshore trusts or funds from which the Prime Minister, Mrs. Cameron or their children will benefit in future.’ It was not enough. The statements clearly referred to now and in the future but did not mention the past. Journalists could smell blood.

By Thursday Downing Street decided the Prime Minister would have to come clean. In an interview with Robert Peston, Political editor of ITV, Cameron explained that he had owned shares in Blairemore from 1997 until 2010, just before he became Prime Minister. When he sold them, he added, he had paid tax on the profits.

On Saturday, David Cameron felt he needed to publish full details of his tax affairs, and then chancellor George Osborne announced he would do the same. Despite considerable efforts to draw a line under the whole thing, as I write the story continues to hit the headlines and the fall out is now spreading to other members of the Tory party. The damage to Cameron, to Osborne and to the Tories is huge.

Crisis communication lesson: deflect, dismiss, deny is not recommended

The question is, had David Cameron come clean on Monday, or even before, would the damage have been less? Accepted wisdom  is yes, that after an initial splurge of coverage the world would have quickly moved on because there was no ‘sport’ in chasing the details. It is hard to be sure, and the truth is that sometimes companies and people do manage to kill a story by obfuscating. But ‘deflect, dismiss, deny’ is not a strategy recommended in any crisis communications training.

 

Here are 13  minutes of Cameron being gently grilled by Robert Peston, the crucial bit is at 3′ 20″. Overall we think Cameron handles this interview very well but the damage was done.

 

 

Photo: the Mirror via Creative Commons