A great deal has been made in the last week out of the public relations debacle United Airlines created for itself when it literally had a passenger dragged off its plane. The man had already paid for his seat and willingly followed all security and boarding procedures. By all accounts, he was quietly minding his own business and waiting for takeoff like everyone else. What happened next is as clear as at least ten cell phone videos can make it. The questions a lot of us are now working through include what should have happened leading up to that point, what should United have communicated immediately after the incident and how the company is going to ensure something even remotely close to this never happens again.
Answering that last question is where senior HR professionals can have the greatest impact. At its core, the United incident was a profoundly unthoughtful, real-time decision made by operations folks on the ground. It was exponentially compounded by a communications strategy that, at a minimum, was indifferent, but could be more accurately called callous. The only thing that would make this even more irresponsible is if the whole thing failed to drive a vigorous internal conversation about how to effectively train frontline workers. They need the skills to successfully manage consumer-facing challenges in an era of instant cell phone videos, instant social media and immediate judgments by literally millions of people.
If I was a senior HR professional in our industry, I would be losing sleep over the potential for isolated, bad decisions by one or two employees to get massive exposure and severely damage the company’s brand reputation. I would be waiting at the door of every C-suite colleague to warn them about the need to focus serious attention and training resources on ensuring managers and field teams are adequately prepared to deal with the new reality.
As an industry, our leading companies have done an excellent job training field and store-level managers to effectively manage employee-related challenges and workplace situations. We have done a pretty good job in most cases training those teams to handle difficult customer situations in a thoughtful and effective way. And we’ve done a so-so job training them to handle situations involving local law enforcement and regulatory officials. But all that training does not account for the interactions being recorded and sent out to the world with little to no context about the situation. In the modern communications world of cellphones, Twitter, YouTube, SnapChat, Instagram and Facebook, equal training needs to be given to managers to handle the pressures of cameras held by every customer prepared to document everything.
The days of restaurants getting away with a manager referring calls to the corporate office are over. There is no time for that. Events can play out live on social media. “Getting approval from HQ” is not going to cut it in this real-time distribution of confrontations. The news cycle is no longer half-days or hours. It’s minutes and seconds.
I am not advocating that we take our frontline managers and make them into polished spokespersons for the organization. But I am advocating that we train them with the right tools to at least survive those first critical moments when what they do or don’t do, or what they say or don’t say make the difference between a small blip on the internet and a United Airlines-type meltdown.
Reputational damage has staying power. Twenty and 30 years later, we can still remember brands tarnished from foodborne pathogens, class action discrimination lawsuits, and institutional sexual harassment. That was long before the internet and social media. Today the brand risk is exponentially higher, the judgment faster, and the blemish more permanent.
Our brands are actually more vulnerable than United. Passengers make 99 percent of their purchasing decisions based on the lowest fare and geography – direct flights vs. connections. It is hard to imagine people “protesting” United by paying more and flying out of their way. Restaurants, on the other hand, offer customers exponentially more choices. If you have a bone to pick with restaurant brand A, brand B is right next door. And twenty more within a block or two. If we do not prioritize modernizing our frontline training for the modern communications world, we risk our customers dragging themselves to our competitors.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Align Public Strategies, a full service public affairs and creative firm that helps corporate brands, governments and nonprofits navigate the outside world and inform their internal decision-making. For more information, go to AlignPublicStrategies.com.