United Breaks Guitars and People

Once upon a time in corporate and industrial communications, there was a wise guru who helped tell the company just what to say using the power of flowery and poofy language that almost made the company’s rather poor behavior disappear. Sometimes called a “doctor” of spin, this individual made a good living on a mountain of half-truths and sometimes pure lies. That was then, people. Today, we have a U.S. President who communicates using ALL CAPS on Twitter and THAT’s the channel where you’re gonna hear the news. Raw, hard and unfiltered like a rolled cigarette in an old Western.

And if you lack the tolerance for the dead-honest truth, it’s gonna hit you like one as you double over coughing. We are now (and have been for some time) in the anti-spin zone. Case in point, United Airlines, who has really been doing its best to unseat anyone else in the worst brand disasters of 2017 stories.

After its security forcibly removed a paying passenger so that one of its employees could make a flight, its CEO, who PRWeek recently named “Communicator of the Year” said this — “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accomodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” Re-accommodate? Yeah, no. We all SAW the videos.

That was nothing short of full-blown assault..with blood pouring down the victim at the end. There comes a time when you must use those awesome “Communicator of the Year” skills and actually communicate. Maybe something like: “We were truly horrified to see this and Holy Good God this just isn’t us!  Some people in Chicago clearly acted unilaterally and those people are going to be seeking new employment by the time I hit send on this.” 

Ok, legal won’t let you send that — Then try to — Talk. Like. An. Actual. Person. Here’s the lesson and moral of the story — Stop spinning things and just talk. When you try to sound all “professional” and “smooth” you can end up sounding like a cold, uncaring robot (like United did during the recent leggings scandal) and those probably aren’t the “optics” you’re gunning for. Just like company press releases that brag about having a “robust b2b end-to-end solution.” You don’t have one.

And even if you did, NO ONE knows what that is or what it means to them. Business communications and business communicators need to take a hard lesson from President Donald J. Trump. 

Zero spin directly from him and it’s at least 50 percent likely to offend someone. But…that’s where we are. That’s what we’re called to do.