April 14, 2017 By FTI Consulting
The changing news environment – from fake news to self-reinforcing partisan bubbles – has created significant challenges for those in charge of protecting corporate reputations.
When newspapers have to publish stories on what is and isn’t false news, where do we turn for information that we trust? What is news when so many journalists are trapped identifying what isn’t?
This reality creates ambiguity for communications teams around which stories pose a real threat of sticking to brands and public figures.
At the risk of appearing to kick a company while it’s down, which is not at all the intention, it’s worth using the event creating some serious turbulence for United Airlines to break down five aspects of the anatomy of a story that sticks.
We’ve all heard about, if not experienced, our fair share of air travel horror stories, from overnight stays in airports to lost luggage. While airline companies operate in a challenging space (they put thousands of people thousands of feet into the sky in metal tubes each day), there are reasons airline companies typically find themselves on unflattering lists about customer service.
That’s one reason the story of United Airlines removing Dr. David Dao from a plane after he had boarded resonated so strongly—everyone has experience frustration while flying.
With trust in the media low, individuals, particularly young adults, have developed a few criteria for what makes them trust a story. One is that they trust live footage that places them at the scene, especially if it’s shot by other citizens/individuals.
Live, crowd-sourced footage is a 21st century luxury if there ever was one, but it’s been critical in making people feel they are seeing the unadulterated facts. As to be expected, footage from a number of civilian journalists surfaced to verify Dr. Dao’s treatment.
People demand multiple sources. Especially when it comes to younger viewers (who are important because they’re more likely to be the cause of your social media meltdown), multiple sources are typically consulted to verify a story whether those sources are CNN or a friend’s Facebook status.
In this case, there were not just multiple media sources telling the story, but multiple smartphone cameras filming the event, leaving no question that viewers could own (and vent) their outrage.
In the United States, it’s safe to say that a David and Goliath trend has taken hold – the rise of Bernie Sanders and success of Donald Trump in claiming the presidency serve as solid proof points.
A lone passenger being forcibly removed from a plane by a number of husky security officials at the behest of a large corporation is a strong representation of exactly that narrative.
This story was born on social media through sharing of videos as the event unfolded. These videos were shared and picked up by news outlets, which then posted them to their websites and shared the stories on social media.
Then, United’s CEO released an initial public statement that was deemed rather callous before sending around an internal memo disparaging Dr. Dao, which was of course leaked. This led to an inundation of angry posts across Twitter and Facebook lambasting the company. In the ongoing fallout, some super memes were born, pulling in Pepsi and getting extra Spicey, and apparently now, to add to United’s woes, scorpions have been thrown into the mix.
Not all stories will have the severity or longevity of this one, but it serves as a good example of breaking down the anatomy of a story that has the potential to stick and become a problem for a corporate brand.
So what should you do if you see a headline, tweet or post that looks like it could be trouble? Consider using this anatomy of a story as a checklist of sorts. Some of these principles are old. Is the story relatable to people in a way that will get their attention? Does it tap into a broader trend that could give it resonance? Others are new or still developing in how they impact the news landscape. Is there a video, particularly a live or user-generated one? Is there content that could go viral? What channels require a response, or at least monitoring?
We all know what to do next: pull out your crisis protocol, gather your crisis, media and leadership teams, and align company messaging and prepared responses. But what we should learn from this example and always remember is that only a modern, multi-channel approach across all media can adequately identify, monitor and respond to a modern corporate crisis.
Think not only about the messages themselves but on what channels they will have, and need to have, the most impact while being sensitive to the demands of those different audiences. Only then can you start to contain your crisis.