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How to salvage the wreckage of United's 'friendly skies' image

By Andrew Eborn and Richard J. Hillgrove VI, Columnists

April 12, 2017 | 9 min read

United Airlines has soared to heady heights in the annals of PR fails this week with its 'overbooking protest' debacle, ousting Pepsi’s faux protest ad from the top spot.

United Airlines

/ Source: Twitter

Once again a large corporation has crashed and burned sending its shares into a tailspin as it failed to read the PR runes. Once again we see how viral can become virulent at the drop of an ill-judged hat.

This time social media responded angrily to the real-life video of a man protesting at being forcibly dragged off a United plane. Shares in the carrier’s parent company United Continental Holdings nosedived shortly after, wiping $1bn off the company’s value.

'Fly the friendly skies'? No one’s falling for that one now, surely.

United had tried to bribe passengers on an overbooked flight to give up four seats for company employees, but no one took the bait so the airline chose four people to boot off the plane. One man resisted and was injured as security men dragged him down the gangway like so much hand baggage.

So far so bad as the video went viral, but United’s chief executive Oscar Munoz added insult to injury by describing the man as “disruptive and belligerent” before apologising for “having to re-accommodate these customers”. That euphemism didn’t sit well with the visible facts.

His foot-in-mouth response to the footage sparked calls for his resignation. An online petition took off like a stealth bomber.

It’s only a few weeks since United’s last PR fail when it was accused of sexism for denying boarding to a 10-year-old. She was wearing leggings, a violation of its dress code for ‘pass riders’ – employees and eligible dependents – apparently.

Rather than admit it might have got it wrong, United tried to justify its dress policy, but this blind dogmatism doesn’t wash.

These days the trick is to lay yourself bare, own up and put up. Admit you screwed up, then demonstrate how you intend to improve. How else will you regain your passengers’ trust?

It’s a strategy Samsung embraced with gusto after the disaster of the Galaxy Note 7 and its incendiary battery.

The tech company has risen from the ashes in time to promote the launch of the S8 with a hair-shirt strategy worthy of the religious fanatic.

Battery fires and explosions sparked two recalls last year, a headache that cost Samsung at least $5bn to ease. Rather than run and hide, the company’s mobile president candidly announced “we are taking responsibility” after a four-month-long investigation.

Its fall from grace was met head on with the fervour of a self-flagellating initiate monk, eager to prostrate himself bare before his maker. The result is a redemption other brands can only pray for.

Fully identifying, admitting and embracing one’s failings is a major power behind modern PR. It’s a brave call, but admitting your quirks and failures displays a warts-and-all authenticity. Your audience, with all their own failings, can feel your pain. And they get it.

Defensiveness and an inability to accept your failings only ever serves to make matters worse and amplify the problem. Publicly exorcising your demons is the only fail-safe approach. Get it all out in the open. Show your naked self.

Even Pepsi owned up to its protest ad mistake: "Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intent to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout."

It also apologised for “putting Kendall Jenner in this position”, although this suggests somewhat patronisingly that Kendall had no choice over whether she took the job or not. What was team Kendall thinking?

Meanwhile, the young supermodel and reality TV star is said to be traumatised by the whole debacle and scared that she’ll become a laughing stock or never work again.

The fact is, whether you’re a one-woman brand or a giant corporation, the lesson is the same. Sheepishly hiding away communicates a lack of self-awareness which in turn breeds the very things you want to avoid – gossip and disdain. That’s when you start to spiral down the drain with the dirty dish water.

You’ve got to always stay one step ahead of your audience and realise your clear failings before they do. Out yourself at every given opportunity, before someone else does it for you.

This positive self-flagellation has been made into an art form by Samsung in its latest campaign.

Not only does its PR dance to the tune or repentance, but the creative thrust of its advertising is all about its failure as well.

Samsung has mentioned the Note 7 saga in every subsequent press conference it's held, but rather than apologise, it has reversed expectation to engineer a solution.

The advertising creative is all about its seeing of the light when it comes to safety. It’s even offered up an ad with a flashy, funky soundtrack to detail its sexy battery safety features.

President Bill Clinton followed a similar strategy in 1998 when he fully acknowledged that he’d made an inadequate confession to the American people about his adulterous relationship with a White House intern.

He seized the opportunity in a speech to more than 100 religious leaders at breakfast in the White House on Labor Day to say he’d repented and asked Monica Lewinsky and her family for forgiveness.

A classic study comes from Johnson & Johnson, which learned the power of honesty and proactivity back in 1982 when seven people died in Chicago after taking extra-strength Tylenol capsules that had been laced with cyanide.

The company immediately fessed up and took 31 million bottles of the painkiller off the shelves at a cost of $31m and stopped all production and advertising for the brand. It also actively joined the search for the killer and even offered a US $100,000 reward, although to no avail.

Once the crisis had died down, it reintroduced Tylenol with new tamper-resistant packaging and discount coupons. Seeing the company’s concern for public safety, the media portrayed it in a good light, allowing the brand to recover.

In 2015, a Germanwings plane crash in the French Alps could have spelled disaster for the airline’s business. All 144 passengers and six crew members were killed in the Luftansa-owned carrier’s first fatal crash in its 18-year history.

It turned out that the co-pilot had deliberately brought the plane down. He’d previously had treatment for suicidal tendencies. Lufthansa’s chief executive, Carsten Spohr, immediately flew into action, calling it "the darkest day for Lufthansa in its 60-year history", offering condolences to the bereaved and promising to ensure that pilots are given full health checks. The crash prompted a number of aviation safety reviews and Germanwings survived to merge with Eurowings last year.

United take note. Your public needs to know you care.

Samsung is part of a new corporate wave of openness and honesty as companies learn to swim in their own shit.

One of the stars in this pool is Jamie Catto, founder member of the band Faithless turned motivational guru. These days Catto finds corporations putting their faith in him to raise their game.

On his website, he says: “Every challenge can and should be harvested for its gifts and insights reclaiming dormant creative resources and propelling the Company’s mission forward."

He takes the 'let it all hang out' tack and companies like Google, KPMG and even Pepsi are loving it to the max.

It’s open heart surgery to unclog the hardening arteries of brand approval. Samsung must have been listening to this new beat as the creative of its ad campaign majors on how it must do better, stop its obsession with innovation and change key to make safety its new mantra.

For those of us schooled in the “never show weakness or defeat” school of PR it may seem counterintuitive, uncomfortable even, but in the brave new world of open-heart PR it’s bang on.

Bang On to Andrew and Richard on Twitter and email: @andreweborn @OctopusTV @6Hillgrove

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