PR needs PR

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers. Daniel J. Boorstin

Airlines have hit an air pocket. Our own Air India got bashed up and ended up licking the wounds inflicted on it by our neta. United Airlines seems to have ‘dragged’ itself into a bigger mess.

Yesterday we watched with horror of a passenger who paid for his ticket and occupied his seat dragged, beaten up and carried away by United Airlines staff from the aircraft. What followed (and continues) is a public relations disaster.

Today morning news is filled with stories in the media that do not paint a good picture of the passenger David Dao. After pulling him down physically, United is now trying to pull him down as a person. Wait, before boarding are we supposed to get our character also checked apart from our bags and bodies?

United CEO’s initial response was belligerent. He has since apologised thrice in space of a day but the damage is done. Many PR professionals have put forth their views on how United should have managed the situation. However, it is not the first time nor it will be the last time it will happen.

General Motors did the same mistake in public relations nearly 53 years ago. GM launched Covair, a sporty car in 1964. To cut costs, GM compromised on few parts and hid the facts from the customers. Many accidents were reported but GM kept quiet even though they knew the problem. Ralph Nadar, an automotive engineer wrote a book “Unsafe at any speed” highlighting safety problems with cars due to compromises by makers. Of which only one chapter was on Covair. The book hit the market at the time the complaints about Covair were increasing. Big GM got enraged.

GM’s PR team got into an aggressive mode. They dug into the life of Ralph Nadar and splashed dirt about his life, political leanings, sexuality and much more. It clearly backfired. The book got publicity and more people read it. Those who never found a problem in their Covair suddenly started finding problems! GM apologised, withdrew the car and paid compensation to Ralph Nadar. Positive fall-out was increased auto safety norms, consumer rights, seat belts were made mandatory and much more.

Public Relations is mistaken to be a magical wand that will drive away any bad doings by the organisations. If an organisation is wrong, it is wrong – after all it is run by humans! Apologise, take corrective action and ensure the mistake is not repeated. In today’s world, the loss of face and money (United lost a billion in stock price in a day) is instant.

Good organisation rules are the basis of good PR not the other way round. Take this example.

How much do two crates of mineral water bottles cost in Starbucks? For all the over pricing, it should cost $150 dollar. But it costed Starbucks two million and 150 dollars! On 9/11 2001, few fire service men entered the Starbucks restaurant in Manhattan to ask for water as they were dehydrated due to fighting the fire at World Trade center after the terrorist attacks. Starbucks employee billed them $150. They felt it was grossly overpriced and also inappropriate to demand money due to the situation. The employee was no mood to relent. Rules are rules and you need to pay. All the firemen pooled their monies and bought the water bottles.

Later these firemen sent a representation to Starbucks requesting for refund considering the situation but got no response (after all, rules are rules aren’t they?). A reporter picked up the story and finally it reached top management after lots of unwanted publicity. Starbucks refunded $150 to the firemen and also donated 2 million dollars on their behalf to their favourite charity. PR is costly.

Rules and regulations are necessary for any organisation. Or else there will be chaos and lack of standards. However, organisations should treat rules as guides and not as rings of fire which employees (or customers) can cross at their own peril. Humility, honesty and compassion override and overrule every rule any organisation can ever draft and circulate.

You don’t need a PR agency to manage that.



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