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Regrets? We're Getting A Few

13/04/2017 10:55

A vintage week, then, for connoisseurs of the public apology. The head of a major airline regrets the violent ejection of a passenger, and the White House a reference to Adolf Hitler not using poison gas (clue: The Holocaust).

As is so often the case, the ritual atonement - certainly in the case of the unfortunate traveller - also seemed to have been dragged out kicking and screaming.

Thank goodness for smartphone video functions and the sanitising standards that social media can then impose. Without these, I doubt Dr David Dao's rude removal from United Airlines Flight 3411 at Chicago O'Hare would have made the local newspaper, let alone caused a plummet in the share price of United, worldwide outrage and calls for a boycott of its flights.

Without the shocking video footage and plunge in share price it is also hard to believe that airline chief executive Oscar Munoz - PR Week's Communicator of the Year - would have switched from defending his employees for dealing with an overbooking problem of their own making.

There are a few lessons he might consider as Communicator of the Year. The first is that words are indeed cheap, but get them wrong and the consequences can be very expensive. The second is that nobody likes to see fare-paying human dignity despoiled by an organisation that has screwed up.

The third lesson concerns Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary: Never give an inch to Adolf Hitler.

But I suspect the biggest impact will be on the commercial apologist. The consequences for United Airlines is a cautionary warning to all corporations about reputational damage and its impact on revenue.

We should also think about what a public apology is for. Increasingly, it seems to be just part of a damage limitation strategy rather than an authentic, spontaneous expression of regret.

Most of us spend a great deal of time trying to teach our children that an apology is meant to have integrity. We know it and they know it. But why are professional apologies forgetting it?

The answer might just be a plain lack of integrity, of course. Despite the valiant efforts of cabin crew, most of us now find flying unpleasant and debilitating. Airlines seem to delight in withdrawing the few paltry treats they offer and giving the impression that they are doing us a favour by even allowing anyone on board at all. Peanuts, too? Who do we think we are?

This bad attitude found its legs with low cost carriers. Rude was cool for a while. Now it's just grating. What happened to Dr Dao touched all sorts of nerves all over the place. But one of those nerves was growing anger at the way travellers get treated these days.

But there is something good emerging in this era of cost-cutting corporate consolidation: it may not be politicians and regulators who best hold organisations to account, but everyone with a smartphone and a social media account. You and me, in other words. An authentic visual record of bad corporate behaviour may produce rather more authentic apologies in future.

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