Reflections on crisis response in the wake of the United Airlines furore:

In the recent past, the airline industry has a mixed record when it comes to managing and responding to a crisis. AirAsia CEO, Tony Fernandes, showed how it should be done when handling the immediate aftermath of the crash of flight 8501 in Indonesia in late 2014. Within a matter of hours he was in Surabaya, the departure airport, offering the families of the passengers and crew both compassion and practical assistance, and, by the following day, he was at the small coastal town where the aircraft had come down exhibiting sensitivity with his every word and action. In contrast, earlier that same year, Malaysia Airlines adopted a cautious and defensive response to the disappearance of MH370 (with a five hour wait for its first response, a perceived ongoing lack of transparency and information updating that prompted bereaved families to walk out of its press conference) and a crisis management and communications strategy that succeeded in worsening the crisis!

Frustratingly, it appears that United Airlines and its CEO, Oscar Munoz, have either learnt very little from industry history or have not been well served by their advisers. Their key shortcoming has been a seeming lack of recognition of the escalation power of social media, which, despite its potential for encouraging brutality of expression and perhaps counter-intuitively, makes a demand on crisis responders to demonstrate almost immediate empathy, humanity and transparency. Mr. Munoz has now issued something approaching a full apology and has made the point that, “It’s never too late to do the right thing”; at one level, he is, of course, correct, but the reality is that, in an age of instantaneous communication and rolling news, you really do have to get in early, say sorry, be determined to find out what went wrong, and show your sincerity. Immediacy is the prime chance to shape the narrative, especially in respect of social media.

As Mr Munoz is no doubt seeing for himself, crisis management is a test of leadership. When faced with a critical event or incident, a purposeful leader should:

  • Be prepared to accept that it is a crisis;
  • Be very careful about issuing a denial;
  • Be true to the values that, almost invariably, the company or organisation will have spent much time and money in extolling.

Looking from the outside, it does not appear that United has appreciated the importance of actually setting the communication agenda. On the contrary, it has managed to issue three apologies, sought to lay primary blame on the passenger and has failed to appreciate that providing information that, without equivocation, addresses the varying emotions of distaste, unease or outrage felt by those viewing the widely circulated video clip.

This sort of incident does, at least, highlight to senior decision-makers and corporate crisis management teams that there are certain principles that, if applied in a crisis, are likely to provide the best chance of coming through it with the minimum possible damage to brand and reputation:

  • Make decisions and be prepared to take responsibility for them;
  • You will only get crisis communication right if you get the crisis decision-making right;
  • Be human and visible;
  • In the immediacy of the crisis, remember that the most important person is the affected customer/consumer;
  • Apologise and remember that an apology does not have to mean an admission of legal liability;
  • Be prepared for your crisis management and business continuity plans to show themselves to be unfit for purpose when you actually seek to implement them! In other words, be guided in your response by overriding principles with which you have fully familiarised yourself;
  • Assemble a crisis management team and have in place a command and control structure that is role, not hierarchy, based;
  • Internal crisis communications and briefing should be on a need to know basis (simply because otherwise you will spend all your time during a crisis briefing or being briefed…in a crisis just about everyone in the organisation will believe they ought to be briefed on everything!).

As both City-based legal and crisis management professionals, we would be the first to recognise that it is all too easy to set out these rubrics, but often much more difficult to implement them effectively. Indeed, experience has shown that there are dangers in rushing ahead with the development of crisis management policies and procedures without first rigorously assessing them, along with any existing corporate measures, in order to avoid unnecessary outlay and to ensure a framework that is actually workable and has the full engagement of management and staff alike.

Regrettably, but not altogether surprisingly, those who find themselves at the heart of a crisis or the response to it may be reluctant or unwilling thereafter to share their experiences and the learning from it. This may occur for a host of reasons: hierarchical or corporate cultural restraint, fear of recrimination, lack of confidence or simply the absence of ‘buy-in’ by those involved. Such challenges convinced us that we needed to develop a debriefing mechanism that would benefit the organisation and the employee equally, one that both informs an employer and, at the same time, allows experiences, ideas and opinions, in fact, any matter of consequence, to be provided in a frank and constructive manner.

The answer that we arrived at is an anonymised debriefing tool and supporting methodology called Solve:Interactive that we specifically developed to enable both the challenges and the solutions to them to be identified from within an organisation, rather than from the outside. Some of the regular uses to which we put it include:

  • Assessing organisational responses following a critical incident;
  • Identification of good practices and lessons to be learnt in the wake of a critical incident;
  • Testing internal response arrangements;
  • Creating new or assessing existing policies and procedures;
  • Risk assessment and risk management;
  • Conducting scoping/needs assessment exercises.

At the same time, we realised that a crisis management plan (and, by the same token, other corporate procedures, such as compliance measures) need to be realistically tested. Our answer has been an immersive training approach, Solve:Immersive, which allows for testing in a ‘safe’ and consequence-free, yet all too realistic, environment. Importantly, from the standpoint of a client, it gives focus to decision-making and leadership, while also being cost-effective.

Responding to a crisis is not, and will never be, an exact science and there is certainly no ‘one size fits all’ solution. But experience has shown that preparation is key and that, as unpalatable as it sounds, it pays to ‘think the unthinkable’ in advance and to ensure that the experience and knowledge of those within the organisation are not left outside the door of the crisis management room!

Amicus Legal Consultants

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United Kingdom

Gray's Inn Chambers
Gray's Inn
United Kingdom


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