Okay, you screwed up – communication to the rescue

The recent communication failures of United Airlines make crisis communication seem like a complicated task, when it really isn’t. Crisis communication is 95% common sense and 5% execution.

You screw up, you apologize. The mantra holds true from incident to incident. And it’s a valuable mantra, too – according to a recent Harvard Business Review article, an organization’s reputation is more defined by how it tackles the crisis than how it got itself into one in the first place. United Airlines owners must know this better than anyone, as the company shed some 1,4 billion dollars in value after CEO Oscar Munoz failed to offer a sincere apology following recent events.

With an abundance of good advice on offer – and even for free on platforms like Twitter – why does crisis communication fail so often?

The fault lies in an unsuccessful analysis of the situation, or a complete disregard for one at all.

The inability to step into someone else’s shoes, to reflect upon one’s behavior from an outsider’s perspective.

Unlike the old saying goes, things are often as they seem. From within, they just tend to look different and can even feel unreasonable. Although these feelings of unjustness are often warranted, don’t let them be your guide.

Try taking a trip in someone else’s shoes with the following steps:

1. Review the critique and be quick about it. What are we being accused of and why? Focus on the mistake, not on the accuser. People remember what went wrong but forget who blew the whistle. Blaming social media for the intensification of the crisis is a guaranteed kiss of death.

2. Goal, goal, goal! The aim of crisis communication is to normalize the situation as swiftly as possible, but getting defensive is a child’s way of tackling problems. There are always excuses to be made, and some may even be legitimate (such as an airline’s right to remove a customer from an overbooked flight). However, excuses seldom save the day. So keep your eye on the money: how would you like people to see you? What do you need to do to make this happen?

3. Ditch the ego. A guaranteed route to disaster is to reside in your own hurt feelings. It’s not about you or the organization you represent, so again: focus on the mistake.

4. Don’t dwell on it. You might hold facts that you know would win over the crowd, but you’re forbidden to use them. What can you do – if you can’t, you can’t. You need to find a different way of reaching your goal.

5. See the forest from the trees. In the middle of the storm, incorrect facts are sure to surface. However, getting caught up on minor details is like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic – it won’t keep you from sinking. Keep your focus on the big picture.

6. Embrace the opportunities. If nothing else, your company is finally interesting! Most likely you’ll have learned a valuable lesson as well. What remains to be done is to figure out what you’re going to do that communicates that you’re moving on as an organization that has changed for the better.


The post is an adaptation of a post originally published in Finnish.

Picture: Bernal Saborio