Trust – lost by a robotic response to a human problem

United Airlines Blog

You can understand why some are concerned about the growing influence of robots in our lives when you consider United Airlines’ thoughtless response to a customer complaint.

Pushing for efficiency Chris Chmura’s flight had left twenty minutes early, leaving him at the gate feeling somewhat confused. His initial complaint was down to the behaviour and service of the gate worker who had failed to deal with the problem caused by the airline. When the Florida reporter issued his complaint United Airlines’ customer service department fell short of what it promised to deliver – instead issuing an unmoving response. The decision to add robots to the customer care team may be a step too far, and consequently have gone some way to damaging the brand image.

The major problem is the gulf between United Airlines’ promises of great customer care compared to the actual delivery of their service. If they truly promise to ‘provide great customer service’ then surely, they’d not have allowed this spell checking gaff, suggesting that his name is relatively similar to ‘Mr Human’, nor would they be so impersonal. The choice to not spell check, or even look over the response points to a lack of a strict external and internal communication policy.

With  little human intervention, what should have been a straightforward apology and correction has now been forgotten and escalated into a much bigger debacle, with the company being ridiculed for its inability to deal with a simple problem.

The idea of a customer services department reliant on its computers to confidentially deal with issues overshadows the original problems highlighted by the baiting reporter, but what’s more alarming is that Chmura has blown up a bigger problem, failure to successfully communicate with its customers in an appropriate and diligent demeanour.

Words are cheap and United Airlines has definitely proven that by saying “Mr Human, your email clearly expresses your disappointment and I would like to extend a sincere apology for any negative impression that may have been created.” How can a computer be sincere?

In all the communication error made by the airline points to a larger problem, and has gone some way to scarring the brand. If you’re going to make promises, make sure you keep them otherwise your brand will appear hollow.

That’s why a guarantee is so binding – a contractual promise that pays out if you fail to deliver rather than a few well meaning words and a discretionary compensation.

Where is the brand custodian at UA?  Why aren’t they putting up a stauncher defence?

Is this a world class company?

Chris Chmura isn’t the only angry felt passenger… tweeted: @iamwill I’m flying to china and @united just gave my seats away…wtf

Robert from El Cajon, California: ‘The United flight #5422 was delayed when a crew member did not make it to work.’

Jeff of Tomball, Texas: ‘My mother-in-law who is 72 was supposed to have a direct flight with United Airlines leaving from Houston to San Francisco today. We get there. The flight’s been cancelled to 10am… So we wait till 10 then the flights cancelled to 1:15pm… the customer service is non-existent with this company.’

Would YOU trust to fly UA?


BP and Chile: building belief in a brand – by Aimee Postle

Aimee Postle

Aimee Postle

So, back in April, an oil rig blew up off the coast of Louisiana.  More than six months later and BP is still feeling the full force of the damage to its reputation, its share price and its ability to move forward with new projects.

In August, 33 miners were trapped deep underground in Chile and were not rescued until two months later.  A month after the rescue and Chile is still basking in the reflected glory of success and world attention.

Two crises, two very different outcomes.  What lessons are there to learn for business?

  • Get out of your BED (blame, excuses, denial) and pick up your OAR (ownership, accountability, responsibility) – where BP tried to blame everyone but themselves, the Chilean government took responsibility for staging a mammoth rescue attempt with the eyes of the world watching.
  • Personality matters – while Tony Haywood at BP was vilified for taking a sailing trip in the middle of the disaster, Chilean billionaire President Sebastian Pinera was available for comment and acted as a charismatic spokesperson for the country as a whole.  US President Obama’s approval rating sank after a slow reaction to the BP disaster while Pinera’s grew.
  • It all comes back to basic identity – while BP workers the world over conveniently forgot who they worked for when it came to socialising with friends, the Chilean people rediscovered their heritage and national identity.  While BP tried to disassociate itself from the crisis, Chile used their situation as a textbook example of turning a crisis into a reputation triumph.  The rescue of these 33 miners has sparked nationalist parties throughout the country with people celebrating and reconnecting to their national identity.

So, next time you get a call in the middle of the night to react to a business crisis… stop and think.  Instead of thinking about how to pass the buck, consider instead how you can own the crisis and influence your reputation positively.

The Martini Era – by Angela Podmore

Angela Podmore, MD, Kinetic Communications - Birmingham PR Consultancy

Angela Podmore


Anyone remember the Martini ads?  At their zenith in the 1970s but repeated in the 1990s (I think), they featured the beautiful people having wonderful times in the world’s most glamorous places and promised pleasure anytime, anyplace, anywhere.

What’s it got to do with today?

Whatever brand you need people to believe in – personal or corporate – it’s open to attack anytime, anyplace, anywhere.  I’ve coined it the ‘Martini era’.  Let’s hope they won’t chase me for copyright infringement – they should consider it a favour.

So how do you control brand reputation in these times?


The answer?  Make sure everyone knows what you stand for.  What’s your common purpose as an organisation?  What makes you stand out?  How do you define ‘your way’ of doing things?  Your culture?

The answers to these questions are the essential essence.  They’re what makes your brand tick.  Bottle that essence and it pulls everything into sharp focus.  We all know how powerful that is.  Ever started a fire with the sun’s rays and a simple magnifying glass?


Size doesn’t matter.  Business start-up and multinational alike understand the need for focus.  But it’s equally interesting who doesn’t get it.


Positive Pressure gets it.  They’ve been in business for a few years but knew they didn’t have their ‘elevator sell’ sorted – ie that ten second sell that would make them stand out if they were sharing a lift with a stranger.

They knew what they did – they can measure the difference they make in team performance by building individual wellbeing ( massage, reflexology etc).

Our two hour session energised them because “the vision is so exciting and it’s great to have something that feels so right”.  Hopefully, that clarity will help them with every business decision from now on.


For big business, let’s look at Goodrich:  Fortune 500, global aerospace and defence company.  ‘If there’s an aircraft in the sky, we’re on it’.  They know their essence.  They also know the key is to integrate internal and external communications.

Goodrich ECEPS division – 1,000 people spread over five continents – understands how internal communications is key to keep the essence alive.

For all its investment in a successful Farnborough Show, trade advertising and sponsorships, a disgruntled employee could shake the faith in its reputation with what would appear to them an anodyne, online comment.

So when Niki Court, ECEPS marketing co-ordinator, asked us to come into an internal communications session and challenge them, I knew exactly where she was coming from.  She wanted an ‘agent provocateur’.

(I had the good fortune to work at Saatchis in the 1980s where we were taught to seek opposite opinion.  Criticism is more powerful than harmony in testing creative ideas.)

Niki was leading a continuous improvement workshop and wanted an outsider’s perspective.  We served up an A0 sheet filled with pictures of exemplars to inspire the team to raise their game when communicating internally.

All were highly skilled and experienced communicators around the table.

“Kinetic helped spark interesting conversations,” said Niki.  “The session was very interactive from the start and the conversations carried on long after they’d left.  They inspired us in quite a few ways by using new/different methods of communication.

“Their thoughts on exemplars – what others companies are doing – were also reassuring because they told us that we’re doing a lot right already in terms of internal communications and promoting a values-driven culture.  They helped us put all of what we’re already doing in a clearer context and really raised the energy of the group.”

Organisations like Goodrich have all the channels ‘plumbed in’ – website, intranet, media relations, newsletters etc.  It’s the consistency of their messages that glues them all together.

Today’s top brands are congruent.  That means they look, sound and feel the same anytime, anyplace and anywhere you interact with them.

We are a world away from ‘give me six press cuttings in the local papers.’

We left the era of fluff over substance some time ago.  The Martini era is about transparency, trust and integrity.  Now content is king and conversation is the kingdom.

Building belief in the football brand – by Aimee Postle

Aimee Postle, Account Manager, Kinetic Communications - Birmingham PR consultancy

Aimee Postle

Cameron and Clegg must have been grateful this past week as their Comprehensive Spending Review announcements were overshadowed by something far more important for the UK population – whether Wayne Rooney was, in fact, going to leave Manchester United.

This week has been somewhat of a football focused week – with Pompey on the brink of collapse (again!) and Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson facing a barrage of criticism after just eight league games in charge.  Recent months have seen the cash for votes scandal around the England 2018 bid for the FIFA World Cup while the exit of Martin O’Neill from Aston Villa dominated headlines for a number of days.

So, what is it about ‘the beautiful game’ which captures hearts and minds – and headlines – and what can the business world learn when it comes to managing their own reputations?

Rich or poor, black or white, at home or abroad – anyone can watch or support football.  It is universally understood and transcends linguistic, cultural and geographic barriers.  Clubs such as Manchester United are internationally recognised – with kits and souvenirs being shipped all over the world.  It could be argued that Rooney’s exit – no longer to happen – would have been felt further and wider than the UK spending cuts.

For business, this suggests that universal access can reap high rewards.

However, while universally accessible, football brands also instil a sense of team pride – fans feel a sense of belonging, the right to comment on failures and revel in success.  Anyone who considers themselves a fan feels they have the right to pass public judgement on the actions of the football business.  So, every decision is examined in minute detail.

For business, something which may lead to uncomfortable outcomes.

Finally, this scrutiny runs both ways.  Football clubs get the positive stories and headlines because they provide information and access in the bad times as well.  The media is a fickle friend and journalists will soon stop talking about the good times if they are not given the access during the bad.

For business, a lesson that media coverage does not always go the way you want it to!

The power of reputation – by Angela Podmore

Recently, Birmingham City University Business School hosted an event on Britain’s Most Admired Companies – annually featured in Management Today.

The study of corporate reputation is led by Prof D Michael Brown and this year’s keynote speaker was Sir Terry Leahy, Tesco CEO since 1997.  He’s grown the turnover to £62.5bn and £3.5bn profit, 48,000 stores and 472,000 staff – in other words a guy who knows a thing or two about getting people facing in the same direction.

Leahy finds reputation, “the most unsettling aspect of management” because you can spend a lifetime hoping to build a reputation and you can lose it in a single day.  He sees most managers as control freaks so “it’s an uncomfortable thought”.

“You can’t buy, own or possess a reputation.  It’s given to you by other people” – with these few words he shows his understanding of reputation.  A reflection of ‘everything you say, everything you do and everything others say about you’ (source:  CIPR).

He explained how far they’d come in that a tobacco company had considered acquiring Tesco in the 1980s but turned down the deal because it “might drag down their reputation”.

Regarding managing reputation, “you can’t set out to manage your reputation.  You just have to ensure you manage your company and ensure you manage a good company.”

He said at the heart of it, a company needs to be built on a clear common purpose of what it exists to do and do it well based on values.

The Tesco vision is to ‘create benefit for customers in order to earn their lifetime loyalty’.  Their values are:  ‘service – no one should try harder for customers than Tesco’ and ‘respect – treat others as we’d like to be treated ourselves’.

Simple!  And that’s why it’s worked so well.

He said you can manage 100 people but you can’t hope to manage hundreds of thousands of people.  You have to ensure they share the sense of common purpose, follow the right strategy, with the right values and we don’t over control the business.

Another great tip he gave any would-be-top-CEO.  “You mustn’t overreact when crisis strikes.  The key is to run with it and come out the other side.  A good company, built on solid foundations will come through the other side.  It’s knowing when to use the sword and the shield.”

He says the power of reputation can be measured in the percentage of ‘intangibles’ of a company’s market capitalisation.  The higher the number, the higher the esteem in which that organisation is held.  So you have Mitchells and Butler at 25%, Sainsbury’s at 30%, Tesco at 60%, M&S at 64%, Severn Trent at 65%, GSK at 83% and Diageo at 86%.  So, measure for measure, Diageo’s reputation is three times more powerful than M&B’s.

Apart from market cap, across all sectors, there are clear links between strong corporate reputation and performance:

·         Quality products

·         Quality marketing/brands

·         Ability to attract, recruit and retain their teams

·         Strong quality management

·         Financial solutions

·         Value as a long-term investment

·         Capacity to innovate

·         Community and environmental responsibility.

But love Leahy for his parting shot:  “reputation is internally managed and externally assessed.”  That’s the best shot in the arm for the owner of an integrated communications consultancy since Bill Gates’ “if I was down to my last dollar, I’d spend it on PR.”

What Tiger Woods should have known about crisis and issues PR… by Aimee Postle

If you’ve not yet caught up then take a look at the BBC and track back through all of the links – sponsorship deals falling away, mistresses coming out of the woodwork and a fairly bizarre crash outside his house in Florida two weeks ago.

PR and communications professionals from throughout the world have commented on what Tiger – and his PR team – did wrong. In essence, he tried to bury his head in the sand and allowed rumour and gossip to fill the resulting void.

So, lessons for UK businesses…

A crisis situation can come from anywhere – it pays to be aware of the potential risk factors.

In Tiger’s case – it was inevitable that his infidelities would be leaked to the media. High profile celebrities are rewarded handsomely when successful but the flipside is the public scrutiny they come under for any minor indiscretion.

For Mattel in 2007, there was always a risk that they would have to recall products due to factors outside their control – suppliers, materials, etc. But, they couldn’t have known that they would have to go through three recalls in four weeks – 18.2 million toys.

If you are open and honest then you are more likely to be in control.

When you refuse to answer questions or make comment then you leave a void that needs to be filled. A drip feed of rumour and gossip – repeated announcements about Tiger’s latest infidelity – just prolong the story.

What Mattel did right was to take control of the story. CEO Bob Eckert gave live interviews to every media outlet that wanted one. The company apologised for any harm or inconvenience they may have caused and allowed third parties – such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission – to announce that no injuries were known to have been caused by the defects.

Finally, plan for the unexpected.

With many businesses shutting down for the Christmas period and team members going on holiday it is all too easy to think that everything will be fine ticking over. But, what happens if something goes wrong? Do you have a crisis and issues management plan in place for the holiday period? Do you know how to get hold of the people who will need to make decisions and comment?

It constantly amazes us how few companies we work with actually have formal crisis and issues management procedures, how few of them know who to call on and how to get hold of them in an emergency.

When we work with new clients, we like to set the house in order. That means getting contact details for all relevant decision makers and team members (phone, mobile, email) and agreeing on a formal sign-off procedure – for example, who needs to see a statement before it is issued?

And, those are just the basics.

Crisis and issues management planning will be different for every organisation – depending on risk factors, size of the organisation, management style, and so on. However, what all well thought through crisis plans will have in common are regular testing, a simple structure, and someone in control of making it happen.
So, who will be holding the fort for you this Christmas?

Now that’s what I call ‘care’ – by Angela Podmore

a>Any one listening to BBC Radio 4 Today programme yesterday (Friday 30.10.09) around 7.45am was treated to hear the difference made by someone’s who’s truly values-driven. Captain Chesley Sullenberger told of his heroic ditching of US Airlines Flight 1549 in January 2009. Not that he’d have it down as heroic. He said he felt all the human things but just did his job in spite of them. He never thought he would die that day. He ‘had the confidence’ that he would ‘solve the problem’.

Hit by bird strike, the A320 tale unfolds in just 208 seconds from take off at La Guardia to a super smooth landing in the Hudson. Computing his options and odds of success, a minute into the flight, he told Air Traffic Control that he was unable to make any airport and the Hudson was his only choice. According to them, there was then an eerie silence. They believed, they’d heard the last words and death sentence of all 155 on board.

One wing tip in the water and all would perish. ‘Sully’ had seen the footage of the hijacked Boeing off the east coast of Africa. He knew the penalties of failure.

But he did it. He pulled it off. Like a scene from a movie according to eye witness accounts. It was all so calm as the water taxis were quick to aid. A ferry passenger Janis Krums captured the surreal scene with his iphone on Twitpic.

How did Sully do it?

Well at 57, he says he had a lot of life experience to draw upon. But how many people do we know that have done exactly the same done for years? Sully’s not like that. He wasn’t interested in just being a good pilot. He wanted to be the best a pilot he could be. He knew that meant not just growing his technical skills as a pilot but also personally. What drove that?

Well he’s an ex-fighter and glider pilot. Sully’s also an instructor with his own safety consultancy. Sitting on the safety and air accident panel for the Airline Pilots Association, he has participated in many investigations. So technically, he was probably the best person to be sat in that pilot’s seat that day.

But he went beyond technical skills that day.

He says he’s thought about what made him make the difference that day. In fact he’s written a book about it. He thinks it’s because he cared. It’s as simple as that.

He showed his care, not just in his expert handling of the plane but also, once landed, he walked the plane twice – waist-high in water – to check all his passengers were off before he made for the safety of the wing.

His courage doubtless inspired the rest of the crew. His co-pilot gave the shirt off his back to a passenger in need as a result of the icy waters of the Hudson.

US Airlines came out of it well. Their spokesman delivered a beautifully crafted press announcement. The company put their passengers and their families first – seeking first to reassure and then give means to gain reassurance. Then finishing with the emphatic commitment to safety: ‘it always is, always has been and always will be paramount.”

But given it’s taken this incident to get Sully back on the earning curve he was used to, my first studies won’t be of US Airlines but I’m off to buy his book. [link].

Lesson 1: crisis and issue management
• Prepare – when crisis strikes, you need to embed systems so you switch to ‘automatic’ rather than having to wrestle with being human!
• Systems – agree protocols.
• Be nimble – keep considering your options and assessing your odds of success.
• Test – once the systems are in place, ensure they work – think of it as flying a flight simulator.
• Keep communicating and keep it crisp – even if it’s a word eg in Sully’s case ‘unable’ was all he said to air traffic control when declining the use of an airport and opting for the Hudson. Equally, passengers were simply told ‘brace for impact’ so that he could concentrate on landing.

Lesson 2¨ values driven person/organisations
• Be proactive – like Sully, be the best you can be.
• Priorities – deal with problems as they arise.
• Confidence – believe in your ability to solve this problem and the one after.