Give corporate communicators a break- failure starts and ends with leadership

Cometh the PR crisis, cometh the troll. In the past week we’ve had an Easter bumper pack of public relations blunders for the twitterati to sink their teeth into. The mother of all has been the United Airlines fiasco which saw a passenger “re-accommodated” in a “de-planed situation” after he refused to be “auto-volunteered” off an overbooked flight.

Linguistic trickery is of course one of the joys to be had from unpicking a PR response. The chief target of ridicule is so often the corporate comms team. Their carefully crafted statements buckle under the weight of trying to sound responsible while avoiding all actual responsibility. Yet do these corporate scribblers deserve our ire or our praise? Their language is of course beyond parody. But they are only working with the tools that they are given. Phrases like “re-accommodated” aren’t obfuscations- they are skilfully fashioned negotiations. When confronted by a CEO whose first response is to deny all liability –no doubt prompted by a call from the lawyers- what is a press office stooge to do? The word accepts that United has a duty of care to their passengers- and shows that their understanding of accommodation is one that is entirely on their own terms. Few who have flown with the cost-cutting airline would dispute this.

The buck stops with the boss. CEO Oscar Munoz gave himself three tries at forming an adequate response. His third –which almost reached humane levels of regret and empathy- is all very well but he will only be judged by his first. In a crisis you are always measured by your initial response. This is where the United furore differs from other high profile gaffes of late. Pepsi is still reeling from the pummelling it received for its latest’s stomach-turning campaign, fronted by Kendall Jenner, which callously attempts to tap into the Black Lives Matter movement. You can appreciate the internal logic of the brand’s creatives: put celeb tab A into zeitgeisty protest tab B to spark award-winning campaign. As soon as Pepsi grew wise to the almighty stench that it had created the company was quick to distance itself. There are already reports of a backlash against the backlash with the video’s defenders manning the barricades for sentimental kitsch advertising (it’s all –they claim- an ingenuous self-parody. Of course.).

Likewise, hapless White House press secretary Sean Spicer once again inflicted needless damage on his administration by saying the Nazis never used chemical weapons. (Clarification: not on their own people. Clarification: don’t mean the Holocaust centers. Clarification: stop digging.) For all the nous he may be lacking Spicer did face up to his error and took the bullet. The episode thus receded into Team Trump’s ever-expanding catalogue of Doh! moments.

United’s Munoz has got himself in a higher order of trouble. As winner of PRWeek’s communicator of the year award he no doubt has enormous confidence in his charm and gift of the gab. In typical ‘taking control’ fashion the rush to respond came at the expense of the need to reflect. His instinct was defensive and it ignored the painstakingly obvious fact that the footage of David Dao’s bloodied face was dominating the narrative. To call someone “belligerent” when the only image we have of them is of being hauled lifelessly along the floor is fighting a twenty-first century problem with twentieth century tools.

Munoz says he will not resign but as he well knows this will not be up to him. Initial signs show United’s stock to have taken a hit. If this fails to pick up Munoz can expect the swiftest of re-accommodation.