Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about United Airline’s decision to force a paying customer off a flight. The passenger refused to go, was dragged off by police, other people filmed the event and United lost hundreds of millions of dollars in value. This is a public relations nightmare.
While you can’t control what will or will not go viral, you can take steps to help prevent a negative news story about your employees from circulating the web. Here’s how to avoid becoming the next United Airlines in the headlines.
Every Employee Is a Public Relations Specialist
Back before YouTube was a thing, companies had strict policies: Employees were not to speak with the press without express permission from the public relations department. That is still a great policy, but it’s kind of outdated. Today, you have to assume that every person who comes into contact with your business or your employees can post the encounter on the internet with the intention of “exposing” you, and that means that every employee should be acting as if a reporter is observing them at all times.
Make sure your employees know this is a possibility. You need to train them to think “how would this play out on the internet?” at all times. If the answer is “really badly,” then they need to change what they are doing.
Employees Need the Ability to Think Outside the Box
What makes an otherwise normal person think “the solution to this problem is to call the police to force a paying customer off the plane?” They needed the seat, so someone had to go, right? Well, no. What they needed was to get four employees to a destination. They could have done a bunch of different things—they could have offered more money to get volunteers, they could have tried to place either the employees or the customers on other airlines, they could have rented a car and had the employees drive 4-5 hours to the destination. Heck, they could have chartered a private jet to take the employees, and it still would have been cheaper than the stock loss United faced!
This is not to say that customers are always right, all the time. They aren’t. It’s not that you should bend over backward for horrible customers. You shouldn’t. But your employees should have the latitude to make decisions that will treat customers with decency and keep situations calm (not to mention off social media).
Being Right Is Not the Most Important Thing
While the internet is busy debating whether United had the right to forcibly drag an already seated passenger off the plane, it’s really irrelevant. Let’s assume that United is 100 percent in the right here. It still doesn’t change a thing. They’ve lost the same amount of money, received the same amount of bad press, and faced the same number of hilarious memes mocking them. It doesn’t matter who was right; United still came out looking wrong.
Think about that when you’re enforcing your policies: Who will look better if this goes viral? How would it have looked instead if the employees had offered a free trip to Hawaii for the volunteers? That might have gone viral as well, with much better consequences.
Three things all employees need to remember: They are all PR reps, being right is not as important as being kind and there is always another solution. Yes, there will be times when the police need to be called, but those are rare. If you can get these things into your employee’s heads, you’ve just drastically reduced your chance of being the next public relations disaster.