For years, United Airlines urged us to “fly the friendly skies.” Unfortunately, this week the company showed just how unfriendly it can be when security staff violently dragged a passenger off one of its flights. The video of the bloodied passenger is shocking and disturbing.

It is bad enough that United did the wrong thing. What is worse is that the company’s handling of it afterwards was just as bad. At first, the company said the flight was overbooked and that it has the right to remove any passenger. We have since learned that the flight was not overbooked – the company wanted the seats for a flight crew needed in another city.

You would think that in the 21st century, companies and their executives would not need outside counsel to determine the right thing to say or do. United should have immediately admitted it made a mistake, apologized to passengers and vowed to hold the employees involved accountable.

Every business or nonprofit organization must be prepared to handle a public relations crisis. A crisis PR plan is an important first step. How a crisis is handled, though, isn’t always the same. Effective communication early on can help diffuse a situation and keep it from snowballing into something much worse. 

I once guided a nonprofit through crisis communications involving an inappropriate sexual relationship between a volunteer and a child the volunteer was mentoring. When the victim’s family filed a lawsuit, the media wanted comment from the nonprofit’s leadership about the relationship. In this situation, I suggested the best way to handle it was to issue a written statement and to not to participate in an on-camera interview. This recommendation worked, as the nonprofit’s message was conveyed word for word on screen.

At a public relations industry conference I attended, a colleague told a story about how he handled a PR crisis for a large, global company. After hearing about the situation from the company’s CEO, the PR pro replied, “I will tell you what you need to do to get out of this, but before I do, you need to pay me $25,000.” The CEO wrote the check and gave it to the PR counselor. The PR pro then told him, “The solution is for you to do nothing. This issue will blow over.” This advice turned out to be right, and the $25,000 payment was far less than the company would have spent on other methods to deal with the issue.

Every crisis situation is different, but the basis for the response should always start with honesty. 

If you need to begin putting together a crisis PR plan, or if you have an issue that needs to be managed, contact Cook Communications today.

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