Insight on United Debacle: PR Can’t Be About Flying by the Seat of Your Pants

Debra Zimmerman Murphey — Photo by Earle Kimmel

By Debra Zimmerman Murphey, Vice President, Content Development

The United Airlines incident isn’t a death knell for the company, but it surely is a case study about the importance of public relations (PR) and how poorly vetted policies and practices can descend into chaos.

Savvy organizations and good business people know that PR is the cornerstone of reputation and brand management. However, it is a specialty sometimes taken for granted.

Then — often in a whiplash of a moment — how a representative of a company acts can become a blunder that masses of consumers, media pundits, and social-media users focus on for days.

Meanwhile, events like this gnaw at good PR practitioners, even those who have never been close to a crisis of embarrassment and outrage in which mea culpa will never be enough. But the standard after events like this must reinforce the important role of PR, treating customers with respect, and being mindful that our constituents and critics are everywhere.

I remember once years back attending a huge annual client conference (as a vendor conducting an audit) in which the lobbyists did a skit that poked fun, during a PAC dinner, at prominent politicians. The whole time, amidst all the laughter and glasses clinking, I kept wondering what kind of PR disaster would ensue if the footage got into the public domain.

Consider it angst, or consider it what good communicators and PR people do. We manage expectations and we have to have a firm grasp on how the organizations and companies in which we work, or to whom we provide services, fully function. Otherwise, we can never help avoid PR disasters.

There was a time when PR experts were rarely at the table, and there still are those occurrences. Yet, we know we will, nonetheless, always be expected to fix the situation when the proverbial crap hits the fan.

The Place of PR is Omnipresent

Early on in any communications career (whether you’re in the news or PR sector), you’ll begin to see the great divide and misconceptions. When I started my career in print journalism, I was indoctrinated, as all newsroom types are, to question “spinmeisters” and “spin”– two words I recoil at to this day.

Ten years later, I left that news outlet and eventually landed a job with a major trade newsletter company. I became senior editor of PR News and was immersed in covering everything on the communications and PR fronts, from media relations and public affairs, to investor relations and crisis communications.

Eventually, I learned that effective PR really isn’t anything at all about making an old jalopy look like a Jaguar. The best PR is about cultivating relationships and credibility, clear messaging and transparency, and fostering a rapport with a range of audiences.

I also remember sitting on an industry panel at a D.C. hotel that looked at how companies dealt with crises. At that time the handling of two airplane crashes, TWA’s explosion and plunge into the Atlantic and ValuJet’s crash into the Everglades decades ago, were contrasted as examples of bad and good crisis management.

TWA got low marks, while ValuJet received high marks and was considered the better handler and messenger. This transpired even though many people died in both crashes. The difference, many believed, was the compassion and humanity ValuJet conveyed.

So if that is any benchmark for smart companies and organizations — and for all employees who need to realize that at some point they are the company and brand — consider how your actions and approaches will look on a screen that speaks to millions of people in one voice.

Treating people well and being fair and ethical in business are good carrier pigeons, even for mighty businesses with metal wings.