This blog post is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
When faced with a major social-mediated crisis that impacts both internal and external audiences, what should an organization do to best navigate the situation? United Airlines in 2017 showed us the “worst practices.” On April 9, 2017, a viral smartphone video that showed a boarded passenger, Dr. David Dao, being dragged off his seat in blood and unconscious, sent the United Airlines into a global crisis. CEO Oscar Munoz’s internal letter to employees, which was made public, called Dr. Dao “disruptive and belligerent” and commended the crew who called in Chicago Aviation Security officers who resorted to force to deplane Dr. Dao, only to make room for four deadheading airline employees. Mr. Munoz apologized later and vowed to conduct internal investigations and make policy changes (Creswell & Maheshwari, 2017). Mr. Munoz clearly displayed a lack of authenticity to his internal audiences and a violation of the ethical expectations of external publics, such as consumers. In this post, we draw findings from our latest publication and other relevant literature to discuss the impact of an organization’s authentic and ethical internal communication on its external relations in light of the United Airlines crisis.
An organization desiring to foster quality relationships with various publics, both internal and external, are expected to be authentic and ethical. Authentic organizations are truthful, transparent, and consistent (Shen & Kim, 2012a, 2012b). Mr. Munoz failed to obtain the facts and make an objective assessment of the situation before communicating with his employees, which was inconsistent with his consequent external communication. Such a lack of authenticity is not unique to the United Airlines crisis, but all too familiar to us who have seen corporate leaders fail. A best practice, in this case, would be to first assess the situation thoroughly and thoughtfully and stay transparent and consistent with both internal and external publics in both actions and communication. This would allow organizations like United Airlines to gain trust and reduce distrust among employees and consumers.
Being seen as ethical in the eyes of the beholders is a three-part judgment, involving an assessment of justice, utilitarianism, and egoism (Cheng & Shen, 2020). Employees often consider whether their employers’ ethical values are consistent with their own, which directly impacts the extent of organization-employee relationships (Shen & Kim, 2012). In a crisis situation, an organization’s management is expected to be just and fair in their crisis responses/actions (justice), thoughtful in considering and fulfilling publics’ self-interests (egoism), and pragmatic to publics’ balance of costs and benefits (utilitarianism).
In the United Airlines situation, the company leadership clearly prioritized operational and financial performance over employees’ and consumers’ best interests, such as violently deplaning a boarded customer to make room for deadheading airline employees. There was a big disconnect between the company’s espoused core values—caring, safe, dependable, and efficient—and its actual words and actions to both employees and consumers. A truly ethical organizational culture needs to be re-built and cultivated to regain trust and alleviate distrust of their publics.
We want to leave with some best practice insights for internal communication managers. The best crisis managers are always monitoring issues before they become crises. Better organization-public relationships, including higher trust and lower distrust, do not magically appear out of nowhere but rely on an organization’s ability to 1) create and maintain an ethical culture with clearly actionable values so employees could approach the everyday complexities quickly and appropriately; 2) live and breathe authenticity with its internal audiences first, as these client-facing employees should believe in what they are preaching to be able to engage with external publics.
Hongmei Shen, Ph.D., APR, is a professor in public relations at the School of Journalism & Media Studies, San Diego State University. Follow Dr. Shen on Twitter: @profshen.
Yang Cheng (Ph.D. University of Missouri-Columbia) is an Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University.
Cheng, Y., & Shen, H. (in press). United Airlines crisis from the stakeholder perspective: Exploring customers’ ethical judgment, trust and distrust, and behavioral intentions. Public Relations Review, 46(2), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2020.101908
Creswell, J., & Maheshwari, S. (2017). United grapples with PR crisis over videos of man being dragged off plane. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/11/business/united-airline-passenger-overbooked-flights.html
Shen, H., & Kim, J.-N. (2012a). The authentic enterprise: Another buzz word or a true driver of quality relationships? Journal of Public Relations Research, 24, 371-389.
Shen, H., & Kim, J.-N. (2012b). Linking ethics congruence, communication strategies, and relationship building. Public Relations Journal, 6(3), http://www.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/Documents/2012ShenKim.pdf