United Airlines, Lesson II: “…This Is When You Need A Slick PR Person Who Lies For A LIving”

First of all, to clarify, the title of this post isn’t tied to United Airlines incident directly but stems from coverage of the incident, so let’s just get that out of the way.

As for the quote in the title, in general, I wouldn’t generalize the Public Relations profession as one which lies for a living. At all.

Do some in the field lie? Most likely. But that’s like any other field or industry — you’re going to have those few bad apples of poor taste. But I would not put PR people in that category of professionals whose main responsibility is to lie. Instead, in most cases, they need to convey information to the public while, in other instances, they help reconcile what is perceived by those on the outside of the organization to what is delivered by those on the inside.

This particular quote is how Joe Kernen, CNBC news anchor, brings the profession into the fold at the end of this video on CNBC, saying, “This is when you need a slick PR person who lies for a living.” He states this toward the end of the conversation with, and in response to, one of his co-anchors. They are discussing the incident where the United Airlines customer was brutally dragged off of a flight, after the airline had randomly selected various passengers to deplane to make room for United employees who needed the seats. As one of a few of the selected customers, the man refused and an altercation ensued with various videos from different passenger perspectives capturing separate parts of the disruption and subsequently making the viral rounds on social media.

Kernan’s co-anchor thought the CEO should have had more empathy and tact in his response to the incident, whereas Kernen states all the details should come out before any judgement is made on the incident.

Fair enough. But that PR comment, though! (I guess “slick” in Kernan’s comment is the indicator that only such a PR person would lie, but there’s no need for any lying in this United case.)

The United incident is a highly controversial and visible one where the company is drawing ire and jeers from both customers and the public at large on a global scale.  Subsequently, there was no need to add insult to injury, which is the public’s perception of the CEO as he stumbled through various iterations of an apology statement to the public regarding the incident, demonstrating that he’s lacking that basic empathy which would allow him to see the issue from all points of view.

Even though there was originally only going to be one blog post regarding this United incident, which speaks about the need to balance respect and responsibility for both employees and customers, Kernan’s comment added a different twist on the responsibility of a company and CEO, leading to this second post. It seeks to ask the question: Do you really need a PR person to convey the balance between what your employees need and what your customers expect?

This question and post don’t address the inclusion of “lying” in Kernan’s statement because, barring any undisclosed, monumental, or nefarious cover-up, there is no need to lie at all about what occurred on United’s plane.

The reaction of the CEO and company to the incident, as we currently understand it, should cover some high points from the very beginning, immediately after the incident came to light, notably that: (1) standard and common company policies were followed; (2) employees handled the situation per policy (it was airport security who was called to escort the man off the plane); (3) a disagreement ensued where something unfortunate happened, resulting in injury; (4) customer satisfaction and safety are still of utmost importance; (5) but a deeper look will need to take place into this incident and company policies to understand what might’ve gone wrong and what can be improved going forward.

None of this is meant to condone the policy in the first place, or that violence ensued. It’s merely to demonstrate that all these points should be covered as soon as possible if something does go wrong and such an incident occurs. Beyond them being covered, the company needs to convey that it is genuine in learning more about this incident and lessons for the future.

But, with regard to the Kernan PR comment, in general, shouldn’t a CEO -– any CEO — be able to at least understand the points listed above and convey these to their stakeholders and the public without the need for a public relations or communications person? These points are a basic, textbook understanding of how the foundational tenets of a company should provide for, and apply to, a customer’s overall satisfaction. There’s no need to hire “…a slick PR person who lies for a living.” Or any PR person to deliver that message, for that matter.

Some industries call for a higher frequency requirement for regular, detailed reports presented by the designated PR person (looking at you, Sean Spicer). But when it comes to incidents like this, shouldn’t this basic ability to convey company values rise to the level of CEO, regardless of industry?

The true issue is when a CEO doesn’t genuinely understand the basic needs that must be covered for both their employees and their customers, and whom neither can speak to nor convey understanding for those needs for their company or industry.

First and foremost, it’s the right thing to do for your customers. After that, think about what a poor impression might do to your business.

This is one of two lessons stemming from the United incident.

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