United’s bigger issue: not lack of PR but a lack of empowerment

United Airline’s most recent PR crisis – violently hauling a doctor off a plane to make room for a staff member – speaks volumes not so much of the airline’s chronic lack of PR ability but of its culture.  

In an organisation of 82,000 employees carrying more than 143 million customers a year, the imperative has to be to get it right where it really matters – face to face every day with passengers.  But this can’t possibly be achieved if the airline’s focus is not on people but policy and profit.  

When I work with businesses on culture and communication, a simple principle applies.  Empower your people to do the best they can do. People who are empowered feel a sense of control over their own working lives and are motivated to do a good job.

A lack of empowerment meant that staff were unable to deal creatively with the situation of that overbooked flight in Chicago. As airline blogger, Patrick Smith has said: “It appears the airline’s staff reached a point where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something. Summoning the police became the easiest and fastest way out.”

If your internal culture is so dysfunctional that people resort to heavy-handed application of an overly-officious rulebook – you are in trouble.  In a massive organisation like United which deals with so many consumers every single day, the need to empower people to think on their feet is an absolute imperative.  You can’t possibly write a rule for every situation so humanity and empathy will sometimes have to take precedence.

If you assume that your recruitment and staff development process has put good people on the job, then they can be trusted in their abilities to do that job well and intelligently without excessive oversight.  When an unexpected situation arises, the team will then have the ability and the motivation to step up and creatively manage what’s in front of them to produce the best outcome.

United CEO Oscar Munoz was recently lauded as ‘Communicator of the Year’ by US magazine, PR Week, which noted his change of management style, recruitment of a new corporate communications chief and a leadership conference for 700 employees.  Recent events suggest his work has barely scratched the surface of reaching out to an unhappy workforce with a long history of intransigence in dealing with passengers.  Munoz will need to do a great deal more than changing the mindset of 700 employees out of 82,000 if he’s to significantly improve United’s future fortunes.

This week, after a series of missteps, the airline has announced it will amend its policy to say that crew cannot unseat ticketed passengers.  Great.  But that looks like a tiny drop in an ocean of bigger issues which I doubt United will be able to solve soon.