I cannot think of a company in recent history that has endured a more expensive and brutal series of PR blunders than United Airlines. Between the guitar breaking, the legging incident and now the recent forced removal of a passenger bound for Louisville, they have been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons more than most companies will experience in their entire existence.
I’m not going to waste time defending or explaining what happened. For our purposes, the point is that it did happen. In reality, that’s all that counts. No matter whose fault it is, the fuse was lit on the bomb and handed to United to deal with. We all face that same risk. What you do next could easily change the course of your company. In the past 10 days, United has been the focus of incredible scrutiny, criticism, ridicule and calls for a boycott. Their stock suffered a billion- (with a B) dollar loss in value immediately after the latest incident. It has rebounded since then, but even still, the cost of this crisis was excruciatingly high.
The lesson for all of us is that in today’s age of every citizen being a content publisher and everyone carrying a video camera in their pocket, things can go sideways in a hurry. Now more than ever, we live in a perception versus reality world. Even if United was 110 percent in the right, they still had a ticking time bomb to deal with and they could not have handled it more clumsily if they tried.
Where did it go wrong? At every juncture! And worst of all, it would have been avoided completely, which should be our ultimate goal. Once the fuse is lit, it’s pretty tough to douse it.
At the end of the day, whether you look at the gate agent’s choices or the flight attendants or even the TSA officers — everyone was trying to follow the rules without regard to the consequences of those rules.
Everyone is worried about artificial intelligence and its impact on business and our society. We got a sneak preview, but with humans playing the roles of the robots. I think the United debacle is the perfect reminder that AI is not going to be any different than our world today when facts and only facts are applied.
Technically, none of the professionals involved did anything wrong. They followed the rules. But because they didn’t factor in anything but the rules, they did everything wrong.
I’m all for policies, procedures and boundaries. But there are no absolutes in business, and there are certainly no absolutes when you’re dealing with human beings.
At any point in the incident, if the United or TSA employees had stopped and put themselves in the passengers’ shoes, things might have played out very differently. Yes, they would still have had to remove four passengers. But maybe they would have done a better job of explaining why they had to comply with the federal law and put the United crew on that flight. Maybe they would have known that it would be a lot easier and less confrontational to not let anyone board until the volunteers had been identified. And if everyone on the scene behaved just as they actually did, if the C suite at United had taken a moment to consider the humanity in what happened, perhaps their initial statement would have resolved the crisis rather than fanning the flames.
How confident are you that your employees would make different choices? Do they know that they can?