If you had asked the CEO of United Airlines about his biggest threats to the value of the organisation a couple of weeks ago, would they have included the combination of self-inflicted events that occurred last week?

It seems unlikely.

The initial company response relied on re-stating policy, industry practice and explaining that the customer had been “belligerent”. Unfortunately for United, the video evidence uploaded to social media from other customers on the same flight showed a passenger being forcibly removed from the plane.

Social media had trumped traditional communication approaches and the company’s response had to change to reflect the new lens through which the incident was being assessed.  In parallel and making their own assessments based on the velocity, reach and impact of social media, investors quickly priced in the potential downside on future business and sent the share price down.

What may ostensibly have been a local customer service failure in a US city had become a global public relations crisis within hours of the event occurring, potentially causing long term reputational harm.

Protecting value and reputation are key outcomes from a business continuity programme, so what lessons can be drawn from United Airlines’ so called ‘PR gaffe’?

  1. Social media demands swift, open and transparent communications from the start. While social media is often well understood from a marketing perspective, its influence in crisis management still appears to present challenges to organisations. The speed and pervasiveness of social media means that it is best to be open and transparent from the start with a swift and considered response.
  2. An incident exposes the true culture of an organisation. If customers are at the heart of everything a company does, then this needs to be reflected in behaviours at all levels of the organisation; in times of stress as well as during business as usual. When forming a response, it is advisable to view an incident from the perspective of customers and other interested parties rather than solely through an internal lens, however well-intentioned.
  3. Crisis leadership requires practice. The set of circumstances leading to this incident could be described as low likelihood and high impact. Unfortunately, such remote events, if identified, are often side-lined in favour of higher likelihood ones for management scrutiny. Securing investment in both scenario analysis and regular crisis leadership training is essential, precisely because such value-destroying events are not everyday occurrences for executives.
  4. Operational risks can bring substantial reputation harm. Operational risks are as important as financial and strategic ones. This can be seen from the rapid pricing-in of the business consequences of the operational failure in the share price of United Airlines. What may seem to be simply industry-standard policies and procedures need to be tested for unintended consequences and control failures. Front-line staff need to feel empowered to make the right decisions by the customer when controls and procedures fail. Once the reputational risk is fully understood, it needs to be managed and reported as with other risks.
  5. Learn lessons from others. It’s quite typical following incidents such as the one with United Airlines (and even more recently with EasyJet) for senior managers in other organisations to challenge their own company’s risk insight and crisis preparedness. Business continuity professionals therefore have an opportunity to help their own executives understand the lessons and propose actions to close any gaps. Even if there is no request, there’s an opportunity to include commentary in existing reporting to proactively provide assurance to executives.