United Airlines, Spicer Define Bad Crisis Response

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

Last week was a crisis communication junkie fantasy camp as United Airlines dragged a bloodied passenger out of his ticketed seat and Sean Spicer forgot Hitler gassed 6 million Jews. The airline and press secretary will go down in history as among the worst cases of crisis response in history.

For crisis communications junkies, last week was a fantasy camp. United Airlines dragged a passenger off a plane when he wouldn’t give up his ticketed seat. Sean Spicer forgot Adolph Hitler gassed 6 million Jews.

As bad as their flubs were, their follow-up flubs were even worse.

There have been lots of critical TV interviews and blog posts describing both incidents as case studies of what not do in a communications crisis. You didn’t really have to be a crisis expert to point out the serial gaffes.

United Airlines and Spicer finally got around to apologies, but only after excruciating journeys.

  • UA’s CEO initially praised the airline employees who manhandled a passenger off a plane and into a Chicago hospital, then went silent for a day as social media lit up with the video of the bloodied passenger and finally acknowledged something was wrong with company policy that required an investigation. Meanwhile, United’s stock took a big hit, enraged passenger groups called for a boycott and Chicago aldermen, who are no strangers to crisis, dressed down UA officials.
  • Spicer issued several clarifications of his remark intended to show Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a worse bad guy than Hitler, but that seemed oblivious that Hitler used chemical weapons to exterminate Jewish people. Adding to the insensitivity, Spicer’s misguided comparison was made on Passover.

It would take several blogs to list all the lessons and takeaways from the United Airlines and Spicer stumbles. Here are just a couple that deserve mention:

It’s on video, Stupid

Dragging passengers off planes and saying ridiculous stuff at a press briefing aren’t the only things that attract video recording. There are two ex-Sacremento police officers because someone pulled out an iPhone and captured them beating up a man in the middle of the street for a minor traffic violation. They were fired in large part because the report they filed failed to mention the beating. Big mistake.

Executives at United Airlines must have looked at the tape of Dr. David Dao hitting his head on an armrest and being pulled off the plane by his arms. If you looked at that tape and thought it was the passenger’s fault, you need some serious media training – and perhaps psychological counseling. Spicer could have replayed his performance and realized he made a bonehead comment. Everybody else in the room or who saw the tape of his press briefing thought so – almost instantly.

Don’t forget people will have the picture of what you do. Look at the picture from the eyes of viewers, not through rose-colored lenses.

Admit you made a mistake, for crying out loud

Here's the deal. Sooner or later you will apologize. Do it sooner, not later.

People by and large judge your reaction to a gaffe more critically than the gaffe itself. That’s why people embrace Steve Harvey after he erroneously announced the winner of a Miss Universe contest. He owned his mistake, made things right immediately, took his lumps, didn’t react like a jerk to social media mockery and now is more popular than ever.

Instead of making excuses or lame clarifications, make fun of yourself. If you are Spicer, call a press conference, shrug your shoulders and admit you acted like a dunce. The mea culpa takes the wind out of the sails of a crisis if it is genuine and complete.

If you do something dumb, do something smart

The best way to atone for stupidity is to do something brilliant. United Airlines belatedly decided to provide a reward for the traumatized passengers who watched Dr. Dao’s ejection. If the airline is smart, it will settle the likely lawsuit filed on behalf of Dr. Dao so it can concentrate on rebuilding customer trust.

This is not a smarmy moment. Make fun of yourself. Come up with a fun game to deal with oversold ticket situations. Give every passenger in the next month a free glass of good wine. (Disclaimer: I will be passenger on a United Airlines flight within the next month. Check your records for my seat number. I like Cabernet Sauvignon.)

If your White House ID card says Sean Spicer, call up Saturday Night Live and offer to do a parody of yourself. Lorne Michaels would be taken aback and could save money by not paying Melissa McCarthy to play you. Then quietly make a contribution to the effort to make sure no one forgets the Holocaust – and what led up to it.

This blog is long enough. Don’t get me started on Pepsi and Kendall Jenner.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.