What United Airlines Could Learn From BP: Avoid Public Relations Crises by Empowering Employees

You don’t need to be an airline executive or a guest panelist on CNN to know that the United Airlines incident last week — having a passenger physically removed from an aircraft to make room for an employee — could have been avoided.

Photo: My Good Images/shutterstock.com

According to news reports, FAA regulations allow for a cash payment of up to $1,300 to passengers for agreeing to give up their seat. According to reports, the United staff only went up to $800 before calling in law enforcement. There’s a logic behind a mandated incentive cap. You wouldn’t want passengers constantly trying to extort huge sums every day (perhaps out to make up for airlines’ rude treatment).

But there also could be times when breaking the rules could be useful, even highly advisable. The catastrophe last week, on that United Airlines flight, could have been one of those times.

Imagine if just one of the many United employees who were involved in the incident took the initiative to find a solution. Perhaps an employee could have identified a young family who might enjoy the max cash incentive, an extended vacation for a day or two (with hotel, meals and future travel credits to sweeten the deal). This approach could have been taken discreetly. If a flight attendant or gate agent or co-pilot had stepped in and offered an unorthodox package such as this one — for a mere cost of a few thousand dollars — that person would now be a hero to shareholders. Even if United was subject to a hefty fine for “offering too much,” the incident would be tiny, compared to the disaster that United now has on its hands, with its stock plummeting a billion in market value.

Instead of pouring gasoline on the flames, by getting caught up in the legal aspects of the incident, including the inevitable lawsuits on the horizon, United’s PR people should wake up and see that their broader brand liability is at stake. If I were them, I’d begin by announcing a change in the company’s policy on employee empowerment.

This would be taking a page out of BP’s playbook. BP famously advertises that every employee has the power to stop a job if they witness a safety risk. (If you don’t know the reason behind these ads, do a Google search for stories on the Gulf oil spill or rent Deepwater Horizon on Amazon.) That policy by BP could cost the company tens of thousands of dollars, and maybe a lot more, depending on the nature of the work being interrupted. This is a massive amount of authority to put in the hands of someone outside the executive or upper management level. But it is also a great practice, and for many reasons. The project managers, for instance, know that their work is constantly being scrutinized by every person in the company. If something doesn’t look right, someone will step in. And the employee who intervenes will win accolades and praise, as opposed to a write-up in their personnel file. BP’s policy, in other words, not only stops crises in their tracks (moving forward at least), it creates accountability.

Every company can learn from the United Airlines incident and the BP policy of employee empowerment.

It’s easier to be brave when you know your job is not on the line for ‘breaking the rules.’ United should encourage more rule-breaking.

Adam Probolsky is CEO of Probolsky Research, a market and opinion research firm specializing in corporate branding and crisis communiations with offices throughout the U.S.