Crisis Management: Words Are Not Enough: Crisis Response
In 2002 U.S. Senator Trent Lott and United Airlines faced monumental challenges as they tried to talk their way out of trouble.
Senator Lott fell into a self-dug political pit by supporting the old segregation days (perhaps unintentionally) while praising 100-year old colleague (now deceased) Sen. Strom Thurmond. Sen. Lott kept apologizing and saying he is not a racist. Some didn’t believe him or accept his apology. Some said he was damaged political goods. It ultimately kept him from becoming incoming majority leader.
United Airlines’ bankruptcy filing unsettled countless travelers. The airline bought full-page newspaper ads promising to fly, honor tickets, accept frequent flier miles, and pledging much more. The ad said customers boarding the plane will “feel the new energy and new optimism.” The adversity will be an opportunity for “making traveling a little easier.” The ad suggested Chapter 11 was in fact chapter one of a new United. Several advertising and marketing experts told the Wall Street Journal that the claims were admirable in intent, but not believable in execution.
So what was wrong? Lott and United appeared to be following PR 101 and it was not working. Why?
Some background. Every businessperson on the planet has known for years not to say “no comment” to the media. If you do, you might as well pin the scarlet letter G – for Guilty – onto your chest. Another reputation-protecting principle just about as well celebrated is, “When in trouble – apologize.” Cooked the books? “I’m sorry.” Embezzled some money? “Forgive me.” Fired 10,000 employees? “We regret having to do this.”
Do such words ring hollow to you? Why? In the first place, troubled folks are expressing regret so frequently that, sadly, the very words “I apologize” hardly resonate. They seem as common as TV spots and don’t rise above the background noise. Also, some apologists end up in court, prison, or disgrace. Apologies now have about as much credibility to the American public as they do to a spouse of an alcoholic who has heard it all before only to watch his or her mate return to the bottle.
So, Senator Lott’s apology didn’t register. It was not as believable an act as it was just a few years ago. Worse yet, reporters kept uncovering similar past missteps of his along with votes that were somewhat less than civil rights friendly. His apology seemed facile, expedient, and there was the nagging feeling that the Thurmond gaff reflected a deeper truth.
As for United Airlines. It was not really apologizing, but trying to be comforting. But did anyone believe it? Knowing that the airline fired thousands, skirmished with unions, and lost billions, did people genuinely expect battered United employees to energetically provide better service? Workers must have had a bunker mentality at the time, wondering about their future more than how to give an upgrade, extra pillow or one more diet coke from the cart.
At bottom, Lott’s apology and United’s promises were just words. Unless you have a personal reason to trust Lott or United, why should you have believed them?
So if words don’t work, then what does? Actions.
We might have trusted Sen. Lott if there were evidence that he had and will act in ways that show he despises segregation and fights for civil rights. Anything short of that would come up, well, short. So, he was in a jam. It takes time to show that he is pro-civil rights and wasn’t a segregationist in an earlier life. (We should point out that in the ensuing years, Lott pressed on, the scandal abated, and he is once again often quoted about public policy although he no longer retains his former position of status.)
United Airlines had it somewhat easier. A respected company with a record of service, people would be more inclined to believe it would ultimately deliver.
In conclusion, the Sen. Lott case demonstrated that sometimes PR can’t save you. If you cannot act in ways that are reassuring, then look for a graceful exit. (By the way, why did he take four days to apologize the first time?)
United Airlines was quick to try to reassure passengers amidst its financial troubles. Excellent! I only wish someone on their marketing/PR team asked, “Can we honestly guarantee that fliers will ‘feel the new energy and new optimism,’” and said, “Let’s prove it and then say it.”