Culture comes first for reputation strategy

It has been an amazing few weeks of analysis and dissection of United Airlines’  arms-first "deplaning" of a passenger. My aim here is not to pile on United, a good company that made a mistake. I’d rather focus on how this case illuminates the changing role of communications professionals. 

As always when one of these things happens, people who know what I do for a living say to me, "Boy, does United have a PR problem." It does, but what United really has is a culture problem that that led to a PR crisis.

United has admirable and well-articulated shared values. One is "We Fly Right…We earn trust by doing things the right way..." Another is "We Fly Friendly," and a third states that United respects every voice and makes decisions with empathy.

However, these values went out the window on the flight in question and more importantly, when United adopted the policy to remove passengers from overbooked flights. No business should treat the people who pay the bills this way. Any organizational culture that allows it is broken, any decision-making process that supports it is flawed, and any leader who sanctions it is misguided. 

This is why organizational culture must be at the center of every leaders' agenda and must be the foundation of every enterprise's reputation risk strategy. A good company asks itself "who are we, why do we exist, what do we value and how do we live our values in every action, every day." This cultural examination needs to be led by the CEO, with Human Resources, Communications and others as full partners.

This is where communicators can step forward. It is increasingly communicators' role to be the dissenting voice in the room when a policy is being considered that may be contrary to an organization's stated values. If it is, they should advocate for a different course of action.

Communicators have one of the broadest views of anyone in a company and can help define and contextualize values as well as express and communicate them. If your purpose, mission and values are clearly understood by people in the company, there is a greater chance they will inform every decision and action, including how you respond when things go wrong.

This era of instant "blame and shame" heightens the need for a strong culture. Crisis experts appear in the media just hours after an incident, looking back with perfect clarity to dissect every word uttered by a CEO. This can be helpful. But having been inside a few crises and performed imperfectly during them, I know how hard it is. Facts can be limited or contradictory, there are competing voices in the decision room, time is short, and people are overworked. Your mind doesn't work as clearly in a crisis as it does during normal times.

In addition, research shows that companies and leaders are increasingly judged by how they react in tough times. The consequences can be dire for underperforming as the public face of an organization during a crisis.

United has admitted that it responded insensitively when video of the passenger removal first went viral. It defended its actions in clinical corporate language. The word "re-accommodate" will never be the same. United CEO Oscar Munoz, who appears to be a very competent leader, recovered nicely a few days after the incident, but that was too late for United's sinking reputation and market value. The company has since said that it will no longer remove passengers already seated on flights and that it is conducting a comprehensive review of relevant policies. 

Yes, United has a "PR problem." But like just about every major PR crisis of the past decade, it had its roots in an action that failed to match the company's words and aspirations.

That's why it is important to always be led by values that are aligned with broadly held social values, to build a culture that knows and is comfortable with itself, and that can act with confidence and purpose even in the worst of times. This is the primary job of today's CEOs, with the communicator at her or his side.