How education protects organizations from fiascos.

United Airlines recently landed itself into an escalating PR nightmare, and it hasn’t yet left people’s minds or tweets. How could it? A graphic video of Dr. David Dao was forwarded, copied, shared and tweeted globally in a fury of consumer backlash. To further infuse the chaos, the ensuing steps by United were clumsy, ultimately culminating with the CEO of United responding with what many have called a “shameful” response.

So, was this avoidable? And could education have helped alleviate or stop the situation? We think so.

A failure of such nature is rarely a single point of error. There were systematic and process failures, and it was either these were absent or poorly followed. In any case, an opportunity for better education was exposed. Consider the following missteps by United:

  • No good way of loading passengers to avoid such a mishap.
  • No way of clearly handling an escalation when an overbooking wasn’t easily resolved with free tickets.
  • No clear way of promoting better incentives to take another flight.
  • Employees unclear about how to empower the flight crew to take on the challenge, avoiding any confrontation.
  • And, more importantly, how to avoid a physical altercation at any expense.

And, we can argue it’s much less expensive to be proactive, than reactive. In the United case, we can support our position with the loss of shareholder value and business reputation, as well as an increase of negative social media buzz, as key metrics.

This situation could have been prevented if United had been more proactive about educating their employees on crisis management. Two University of Louisville professors, Kristen Lucas and Karen Freberg, experts in managing company crises, explain how they will use the recent United fiasco as a specific case study in their classes in regard to preventing a situation.

“The very best crisis management belongs to those cases that no one will ever study because they were never a crisis,” Lucas said in a recent interview.

In the United case, thanks to poor or no training, no one among the crew was equipped to ease or halt the escalation. Lucas and Freberg mention United employees could have prevented a violent encounter if they had a method for bumping people off at the gate instead of while seated on the plane.

But the challenge remains: We always seem to be reactive rather than proactive. So, during situations like these, when United’s crisis is still fresh on everyone’s mind, we must use this scenario and result to build an investment in informing our audiences across all industries to prevent future crises. While the risk is now apparent, we as educators must build effective education to prevent such circumstances in our industries.

What United may show us is we can’t be soft in the way we approach education for higher profile issues and hazards. Such as, for example, patient safety in healthcare or even financial ethics. These “big” issues require stronger approaches.

We should counter heightened risks with more aggressive approaches in educating, training and creating awareness. One example we enjoyed watching addresses smoking prevention. It caught our attention because it tackles a big issue using creativity, compassion and, most importantly, a sincere, yet aggressive, approach. And, it’s effective in leaving an impression and changing behavior.

Instead of taking the lecture approach of telling people smoking is bad for their health, this ad sets a more impactful tone as young kids approach smoking adults for a “light” to smoke their own cigarette. The shocked adults react by admonishing the child about the health risks of smoking. The kid leaves a note alerting the smoking adult of the hypocrisy (and irony) of each one of them advocating not to smoke.

The video administered an education which informs and changes behavior.

Key takeaway.
For us to make dramatic change in cases where life and death matter, and risk runs high, we must elevate the game in terms of creativity and aggressiveness. For example, for patient safety in the healthcare industry, let’s put away the gentle talk and euphemisms of “adverse events.” Instead, let’s tackle the issues head on with evocative stories of loss and how they’ve impacted families. The common approaches of listing statistics and common preventive procedures have questionable impact. The same can be said about ethics in the workplace; let’s discuss real examples and stories so people can connect with reality.

The challenge is ours, and the time is ripe with the United story still fresh (thanks to social media). How will we take this bad PR story and leverage it with well-honed education to bring positive societal change to our organizations and industries potentially facing similar challenges?

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