Chairman's Desk

What politicians should learn from United Airlines

People accept that mistakes will be made in the process of implementing good intentions and sound policy. They simply want to see that those mistakes are faced up to and managed in a professional and competent way.

It seems counterintuitive, but in communications, attempting to side-step risk can prove to be the riskiest strategy of all.

We have seen this again and again in politics and in business.

In a world where a wrongly placed word can create a maelstrom of reaction on social media, it can be tempting to make only safe, by-the-book public statements.

The problem is that these statements sound like only so much corporate jargon to the public, blather filled with meaningless words like ‘leverage,’ ‘re-accommodate’ and ‘deliverables.’

More than a few businesses and politicians have opted for this supposedly safe approach, rather than speaking in an authentic, and consequently more vulnerable, voice.

But it is a false choice. A company that tries to control the social media and public reaction during a crisis by limiting vulnerability in its public statements is engaging in an exercise in futility.

The reason is simple: a risk-averse approach assumes that people are not capable of consuming or understanding an honest discussion. It shouldn’t be surprising that most people don’t embrace such an attempt.

Take, for example, last week’s United Airlines fiasco, during which the company opted to have a customer forcibly removed by security from an overbooked flight, an encounter that injured the man and horrified his fellow passengers.

Of course, this being 2017, a number of passengers recorded the entire debacle and immediately posted their videos to social media. The spectacle went viral within hours.

The ham-fisted response by United CEO Oscar Munoz did nothing but exacerbate an already difficult situation. In a painfully jargon-ridden release, Munoz apologized for ‘having to re-accommodate passengers,’ a sentiment that was almost comical when juxtaposed with video of a screaming passenger being dragged down an aisle.

Munoz later released another statement apologizing unreservedly for the situation, but the damage to the airline’s reputation had already been done. It will take millions of dollars and a long time before the debacle is forgotten.

The actions were damaging enough, but the statement insulted people’s intelligence. It was an unnecessary and self-dealt blow to the company’s reputation.

It’s a lesson that can also be applied to politics.

Politicians have long honed a way of speaking that fails to resonate with the voters they are courting. Political language has become the language of platitudes, something that has frustrated voters. However, in political circles, it is assumed that the risk of misspeaking using genuine arguments and language far outweighs the cynicism bred by political-speak.

But these assumptions are changing. It has become evident that playing it safe no longer works.

During the U.S. presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton offered what seemed like an endless stream of platitudes and slogans. The line ‘trumped-up, trickle-down economics’ was clearly inserted into the debates by her team as a winning catchphrase. But it found no purchase with viewers who recognized it for what it was — an over-rehearsed line that was too clever by half.

By contrast, Donald Trump’s frenetic, shoot-from-the-hip style won over voters who had grown tired of condescending platitudes. He suffered near-daily debunking in the media, but the aura he established as someone who spoke the truth to power earned him the affection of millions.

A similar story unfolded in Canada. Justin Trudeau has been criticized by the Conservatives for his not-infrequent misstatements, including, for instance, his 2014 statement that Canada need not ‘whip out our CF-18s.’ The Conservative government trumpeted it as further evidence that Liberal leader Trudeau just wasn’t ready for prime time.

In reality, voters responded to Trudeau’s engaged and energetic presence and forgave him for his missteps, as they did with Trump.

The public understands that the business and political worlds are populated by humans — people who make mistakes and who can be problematic.

What the public demands is a genuine voice — someone who speaks to them as educated and informed individuals, and allows them to make decisions on that basis. People accept that mistakes will be made in the process of implementing good intentions and sound policy. They simply want to see that those mistakes are faced up to and managed in a professional and competent way.

Business and political leaders must learn this lesson if they are to communicate effectively in this era of accountability.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 16, 2017.

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