Dr David Dao's violent removal from an overbooked flight (UA3411) prompted a response from United's CEO Oscar Munoz. Unfortunately, while we can criticize Munoz's initial response as grossly inappropriate, we have the benefit of hindsight. The dilemma facing Munoz in the hours immediately after the incident is not uncommon. CEOs have to decide whether to show support for their staff or throw them under the bus? In essence, Munoz had to decide how to address the concerns of the multiple stakeholders.
To his credit, Munoz tried to balance the needs of the various stakeholders. He sent an "internal email" citing support for his staff while publicly taking a middle of the road position about the forced removal of Dr Dao. However, Munoz failed to realize that in a social media enabled world, there is no separation of information. His internal email was leaked and his well intentioned show of support for United's employees fanned the flames of brewing crisis.
If there is one lesson to takeaway from this crisis, is that balancing the communication needs of multiple stakeholders will be increasingly challenging in the era of social media. CEOs facing a crisis need to understand that "internal" employee communications can and will leak. In our opinion, showing support for his employees did not require Munoz to state Dao was "belligerent and disruptive". As United's employees would be primarily concerned about the fair treatment of their colleagues, Munoz could have easily addressed this by promising a thorough and independent investigation into the matter and that all parties involved (employee and customer) would be treated fairly and in accordance with company policies and the law.
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