Internal Communications Lessons from United Airlines

How should a PR crisis be communicated to employees? The United Airlines debacle this week has caused quite a stir across the globe, damaging the company’s stock and causing a loss of market capitalization in the billions of dollars. But this event is certain to have repercussions internally as well. While we don’t have an insider’s view of how UA has approached their communications to employees, we can infer quite a lot from their public relations strategy.

“We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation.” This quote, penned by Warren Buffet in a memo to managers of Berkshire Hathaway, comes to mind whenever a large enterprise commits a major PR blunder such as UA’s. Buffet understands the concept of atoning for a mistake as opposed to justifying clearly wrong behavior, as his fortune and repute were on the brink during a scandal with his former company Salomon Brothers.

But Buffet’s counsel is not only relevant to public relations. A number of internal communications lessons can be drawn from this philosophy and the loads of examples of what happens when it isn’t adhered to. Consider the following tips on communicating to employees following an internal crisis in order to maintain your company’s reputation among the workforce and avoid as much internal damage as possible.

  1. Be on time with your communications. The longer it takes to inform your employees on the actual happenings of a crisis, the more time you give the court of public opinion to shape their own judgement. Buffet pens in the same memo that bad news can always been handled, but undesirable situations are made worse once the news has “festered for awhile.” Squash the rumor mill before it begins to churn by being straightforward and transparent about your internal crisis.
  1. Even though action must be swift, consider all angles before deciding how to communicate. This may seem obvious, but in the heat of a crisis it is easy to make a move you think is correct without deliberating each outcome. The end goal is for employees to feel like the situation is being handled correctly, not to think to themselves, “what were they thinking?”
  1. Don’t blame the victim. If an employee is affected by an internal crisis, coming to work is no longer a positive experience. Placing fault on an employee(s) that is not responsible magnifies the negativity tenfold. Once that loyalty to a company is damaged, there is no telling how long it can take to gain it back, if ever. This goes for employees on the sidelines as well, who are watching how their fellow associates are being treated and are wondering how long it will be until they’re next.
  1. Lastly, don’t let your apologies fall short of what is appropriate. Accept responsibility and apologize for the actual offense, as opposed to conditional or incomplete apologies. Take the opportunity to put a positive spin on your message. Include improvements in your statement and elaborate on how those changes will be reinforced. Give your employees the confidence that, while a misstep may have been made, it is being dealt with competently and will not be repeated.

Need help managing your internal communications during a crisis? Tribe can help.

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