A Sorry Statement

Kate Huvane Gamble, Managing Editor, hsCIO.com

Social media has changed the way we communicate with friends and family, shop, manage our health, and navigate. For businesses, it means getting far more exposure at a far quicker rate than ever before.

In many ways it’s been a positive, as 71 percent of consumers who have a positive experience with a brand are like to recommend it others (Ambassador). And let’s face it, there’s no quicker method of alerting people about sales, new products, or special events than a post on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or other channels.

The more visual the better, as posts involving photos or videos are 40 times more likely to get shared on social media, according to HubSpot.

These are powerful statistics. But of course, there’s a downside.

On Monday, a video surfaced of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight after refusing to give up his seat. In the clip, he was bleeding and appeared disoriented. Now, I understand that there are two sides to every story, but it looked quite damning. And so, as has become the norm when a big corporation makes a big mistake — it spread across the Internet like wildfire (2 million views and counting), generating a firestorm of criticism.

Because instead of making things better, United made it far worse with this sorry excuse for an apology from its CEO, Oscar Munoz (from CNBC).

 

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

Re-accommodate.

Ouch. If you’re going to invent a word in a time like this, it’s probably wise not to choose one that’s so condescending and insensitive.

But Munez wasn’t finished. He then doubled down, noting in an email to United employees that “established procedures were followed,” and going so far as to call the customer “disruptive and belligerent.”

So now not only did he attempt to minimize what happened with corporate speak, but he basically blamed the passenger for being belligerent. And that’s what seemed to ignite the most anger — not the mistreatment, but the refusal to take responsibility. Even if the passenger was being extremely difficult and rude, it shouldn’t have been acknowledged by the CEO, aviation expert John Strickland told CNBC. “When the angry mob on the internet is sympathizing with that passenger and demonizing your company, the last thing you do is criticize that passenger. That just dug the hole for Munoz — and United — deeper.”

I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure the goal is to try to minimize the damage to the company’s image. To Munoz’s credit, he did eventually get the memo, releasing another statement Tuesday stating that United would take “full responsibility” for the situation.

Sarcastic clap.

Really? Now you’re taking full responsibility? I expect more, especially from someone who last month was named Communicator of the Year by PR Week (credit to David Chou’s Twitter feed), and who should’ve already been in mea culpa mode after the backlash United received for leggings-gate.

Turns out I’m not alone in my skepticism of Munoz’s Apology 2.0.

“Better late than never, but the sentiment certainly rings a bit hollow when it follows two previous failures and 36 hours of intense public pressure,” said Jeremy Robinson-Leon, a principal at the corporate public relations firm Group Gordon in a NY Times article. “The back-against-the-wall, through-gritted-teeth apology isn’t generally a winning strategy.”

It’s not. And it’s yet another piece of evidence in the case against apologies that either fall short, come late, or don’t come at all. The lesson here is clear. If your organization has a miss-step, step up. No excuses, no blame, no corporate speak.

The good news for United is that in this social media age, people move on quickly — tomorrow there will be a new scandal and a new CEO in the spotlight.

Let’s hope the next one flies right.

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