Peter Shaplen and Traci Stuart on Law360 Explore United’s PR Turbulence

Blattel Communications Chief Strategist Peter Shaplen and President Traci Staurt authored the Law360 article titled, “What Lawyers Can Learn From United’s Passenger Incident.” The piece explores the public relations and messaging lessons to be gleamed from United Airlines’ recent forceful ejection of a passenger. Text of the article is below and available on the publication’s website by clicking here.

What Lawyers Can Learn From United’s Passenger Incident

Lawyers and in-house counsel would do well to take heed of a few lessons from the recent United Airlines debacle.

United’s single greatest mistake in its bumbling mishandling of passenger Dr. David Dao was failing to recognize the crisis was over even before the first media call to corporate communications and long before the lawyers could be assembled. The pictures told a story from which there was no recovery.

Thanks to social media, the visuals from United Express flight 3411, which are now preserved in perpetuity on the internet, rocketed United into the pantheon of great brand blunders alongside Bhopal and ExxonMobil. The corporate responses, which ranged from attacking the victim to far-too-late (and likely lawyer-driven) explanations from the CEO, are risible for their callousness and insincerity.

Media experts will tell you that pictures like those captured on the aircraft are a gift that keeps on giving. Each video frame shouts “abuse” and “violence.” Bloodied, crying for help, obviously injured, an exposed man treated as whale blubber being manhandled and dragged down the aisle to the shrieks of outrage from fellow passengers will haunt the airline for decades. It’s so outrageous that even a subsequent story, weeks later, about a different airline dust-up with a passenger gave every network the opportunity to reprise the United footage. There’s no escape. For United, this is video purgatory.

Here are the two most important takeaways for counsel.

  1. As everyone has a smartphone and the potential to be a journalist, the public’s ability and eagerness to hit “record” has never been more acute. Viral video spreads more quickly and viciously than even a well-trained corporate communications or legal team’s ability to respond. That venom, once unleashed, has no antidote, no response.
  2. Even if incomplete, social media’s photographic representation of an event becomes the de facto history reel of what occurred. Regardless of any attempts to explain, qualify or present the true and legal facts, the visual evidence, clickable on the internet and reviewable at will, is the basis for the audience’s knowledge (belief) about what occurred.

The change to note is simply this: the old rules no longer apply uniformly. While there was always pressure to mount a quick legal response and communicate it, the time frame for this has been reduced to nanoseconds.

The cliché, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” has never rung truer. And so is this lesser repeated phrase, “Two words are worth 10,000 pictures.” Try these: “We’re sorry.”

United’s situation is a reminder that often in a consumer-oriented, crisis communications environment, if a company does not sincerely apologize very, very early on, they are unlikely to never get off “Page 1” or out of the banner headlines.

Audiences are demanding, but if they can feel a spokesperson’s sincerity and authenticity, they are generally accepting of what is said next. While lawyers often caution that apologies can be construed as admissions of guilt, consumers simply want the companies with which they choose to do business to appear to care, to sound as if they are run by other humans, and to make reasonable assurances that awful, even tragic, events are being handled by grown-ups and not merely out-of-touch, mealy-mouthed speaking suits.

Social media’s documentation of perceived “thugs” acting on behalf of United provides the optics. What legally and actually happened is of less consequence — in that moment — when all stakeholders believe they can see it with their own eyes. The legal strategy will have to move fast, but the reputational damage control must lead.

What media professionals know — and counsel — is that the corporate communications playbook changed that Sunday afternoon at O’Hare.

  • Time always mattered, but never more so than now.
  • Responses that should always be preplanned, considering every contingency, must now be improved to address what the public may see, think or even know before a company and its legal team have the opportunity to get a grasp on the situation.
  • Where once a, “We’re working on it,” may have sufficed, this sort of response will no longer hold sway with audiences, including media, consumers, customers or the general public.
  • Where once “an investigation is underway” might have bought extra minutes and time for a preliminary legal work-up; now, time is already up. The video evidence “speaks for itself” (especially if the company has nothing real to say— or worse, tosses out a quick, unfeeling, lukewarm message in an effort to buy time).
  • Viral videos will quickly take a crisis into a death spiral from which there is no consumer-oriented recovery. (Imagine a trial attorney facing a jury that believes to its marrow that it has already seen all the pictures needed to render a judgment. This alone is likely the driver behind United’s speedy settlement.)

United made so many mistakes it is difficult to catalog them all. They fumbled and stumbled to form a cogent response. They mishandled their CEO on multiple occasions prompting him to share conflicting and discordant messages. They blamed the victim. They promoted internally written, defensive police reports as evidence of the victim’s culpability — and all while he prepares to undergo surgery for his injuries. They obfuscated and continue to compound their abysmal track record by delaying responses to inquiries from Congress and Chicago’s airport board.

United’s handling of this crisis via the standard operating procedure circa 2002 will be fodder for text books and speeches. In 2017, it was way too little, too late. The story was over even before the attorneys got on the line. The airline seems to have thought that they could recover by the second or third news cycle, evidently assuming they had hours to prepare in between. Today, cycles — in the viral world — are measured not by day, nor hour. National and global media lives and thrives on “live” accounts — giving the “cycle” minutes.

Further, with social media increasingly skewed toward photo and video sharing, United’s situation provides a lesson in optics.

Legal counsel would be wise to keep the optics in mind when working through these fast-moving issues. As United looks into the mirror and judges how it handled this story, they’re undoubtedly seeing how they shattered their own looking glass.

Originally published on Law360, May 22, 2017. Posted with permission.