What United Airlines and Sonny Bill have in common

12 April 2017

Two stories making headlines over the last few days have one glaring thing in common that business leaders should learn from. It’s the failure of both United Airlines and Sonny Bill to release accurate information about their predicament as quickly as possible.

You will have seen the story about security guards dragging a passenger off a United plane after the airline decided they needed seats for other cabin crew.

The Sonny Bill issue was his failure to explain why he taped over his BNZ logo on his Blues rugby jersey in their game on Saturday night.

In the United case, there was a huge failure to release the appropriate information in their first statement. It only apologised for having to “re-accommodate the passenger.” That’s terrible language to use. It reminds me of “Alternative Facts,” and almost seems that they aren’t apologising at all.

The lack of a genuine apology may have been due to legal advice for fear of being sued. This is where lawyers and public relations people often differ on their advice. Lawyers are concerned about the court of law, while PR people are more interested in public opinion. Failure to apologise to this passenger almost immediately has done them huge damage in the court of public opinion.

The video went viral in China, United’s biggest developing market and the share price took a huge hit. The real apology has now come, but much of the damage has already been done.

What about Sonny Bill?

Sonny Bill has clearly been asked not to comment on why he covered up the BNZ logo. This has led to a frenzy on social media and talkback radio. It seems to be because of his Muslim belief that interest shouldn’t be charged on lending, but he hasn’t clarified that or put it in any context.

So many people have now decided he is unreasonable and a hypocrite for accepting a huge salary and presumably having a bank account somewhere and earning interest.

How are the issues linked?

Both United and Sonny Bill are now in the position of having to change people’s opinions. It’s far harder to change opinions than to have your side of the story in front of them when they are forming those opinions. If United came out early and apologised genuinely, most people would have seen it as an honest mistake and moved on, particularly if they agreed to consider changing the policy around removing passengers. An apology is often all that’s needed to satisfy people, but it must be given early.

Similarly, if Sonny Bill had clarified his position early (even with a few tweets), two things would have happened. Firstly, his argument would be taken into account when people formed their opinions. And secondly, the story would go away. But by waiting, the story is still far from dead.

In today’s world, you can’t delay commenting on important issues until after next week’s meeting, or tomorrow’s conference call. You need to get the facts asap and get them out now. It’s the only way to limit the damage. You should also have statements on the most likely issues or crisis already prepared.

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Written by

Pete is a leading New Zealand media trainer and regular blogger for his company, Media Training NZ . He has helped leaders from all sectors of society communicate with the media and other stakeholders. Pete is a former daily newspaper reporter and press secretary in the New Zealand government. From these roles, he understands the media process from both sides of the camera.

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