It’s been a couple of weeks since United Airlines re-accommodated a passenger by helping him remove some front teeth, and it’s a few days since WestJet re-accommodated a labradoodle to the wrong city and then lost it. Let’s dive in.
We’ve looked before at corporate values that are more like a puddle of cold cat puke than a meaningful set of guidelines. In the presence of two rather good case studies, let’s see how Cat Puke Corporate Values played a role in what transpired.
Just a month and a bit after PR Week named United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz the Communicator of the Year for 2017, his company landed in some pretty hot water after it asked Chicago police to help remove a passenger to make room for some crew. If this is news to you, or if it’s no longer the Spring of 2017, you can relive the fun here.
This started quite poorly
In the hours following this less-than-ideal customer experience, the United Twitter team started getting inquiries, and for reasons I can’t fathom, kept on responding. Where was the corporate communications team? How were these people left alone to respond to a video of a passenger being assaulted by police? That’s not a very Flying Together moment right there; which is how we can tell it’s a Cat Puke Value.
By late morning the next day, Oscar is loose on Twitter. If the current Complainer-in-Chief is not evidence enough of why executives should not use Twitter unsupervised, then check out this post from a few years ago. Where was the corporate communications team when Oscar was putting his name on this?
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
Perhaps they were in the next room barfing up this message to United’s 87,000 employees (red text is my emphasis):
“Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.
As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.
I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.”
Then it got worse
Certainly the people yacking this all over the place knew it would be on Twitter and Facebook in about a nanosecond, so why they didn’t bother mopping up the dissonant Flying Cat Puke in it is beyond me. In paragraph one we have the (unnamed) customer defying and by paragraph three compounding and refusing. Now how that lines up against their “We Fly Friendly” value is a bit lost on me, but notice the reference to the “We Fly Right” value at the end of paragraph two. Interesting that they are set up in opposition.
But things just got worse for poor Oscar. The video got more views, the media weren’t buying the oversold thing and the corporate communications team, was still MIA. Otherwise, how could this nasty puddle of half-digested mouse be delivered.
“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.
I promise you we will do better.”
This appears to hit all the right notes, at long last, right? Well no. It’s still Flying Cat Puke. The customer, 72 hours post “re-accommodation”, remains unnamed. This is a strategy right out of the trolling manual. If you don’t name the troublemaker, you don’t generate any more publicity for them, and you can position them as not really human. So much for We Fly Friendly. Another way you can tell this is a Cat Puke Value is the way the Dance Apologetica reads like an operations manual. When you’re using words like “incentivizing” and “crew movements” you are not Flying Friendly, and your values are Cat Puke.
It would appear the communication team finally showed up late on Wednesday, with an expert in crisis management in tow. By Thursday, they’ve offered refunds to everyone on the flight and finally invoked, you guessed it, the values.
“First, we are committing that United will not ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from our flights unless it is a matter of safety and security. Second, we’ve started a thorough review of policies that govern crew movement, incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. Third, we will fully review and improve our training programs to ensure our employees are prepared and empowered to put our customers first. Our values – not just systems – will guide everything we do. We’ll communicate the results of our review and the actions we will take by April 30.”
This took four days?
Now let’s look at the value that most resembles Cat Puke in the aftermath of this. That would be the one that goes “We Fly Together.” While that is, I’m sure, literally true, what in the name of all that is flushable made it okay to leave your 87,000 employees without a decent way to talk about this? Not having a good way to talk about this throws your people under the luggage tug and messes up what’s left of your brand.
The Labradoodle chronicles
Compare this mess with another little snafu in airline land. Cooper the dog is supposed to fly WestJet from Halifax to Deer Lake, but is put on a flight to Hamilton. Easy mistake; they sound practically the same and they share two letters.
On landing in the wrong city, Cooper is taken out of his crate for a bio break in an insecure area and gets away. Strike two.
After doing two things wrong, WestJet did a whole bunch of things right: they got a corporate spokesperson to start talking about how they were handling the situation. No CEO tweeting about “re-homing” the dog, no technical biz speak, just, a good old fashioned flak catcher, with a couple of well-written statements, like this one:
“Our primary focus was reuniting Cooper and his owner. In the days ahead, we will review our procedures in an effort to determine what happened and make changes if needed to prevent future, similar occurrences.”
They owned the issue. They flew the dog’s owners to Hamilton, put them up in a hotel, refunded all kinds of money and helped with the search. When the dog was found two days later, they paid the vet bills and flew the family home.
They lived up to, and they lived by, their “Fun, friendly and caring” value.
Was there nasty stuff on Twitter about the dog? Of course. Does WestJet get it right all the time? Of course not. But they understand something United seems to have missed, which is that when you arm your people with a way of being instead of a list of rules, they will almost certainly act like the grown ups they are.
This is why we have values, my friends. They make us feel a bit warm in the good times, but when you fu*k something up, they become your playbook.
All else is Cat Puke.
BizMarketer is written by Elizabeth Williams
I help companies have better conversations
Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org