When I was speaking at the YPO/WPO luncheon in Minneapolis two weeks ago, I mentioned that I was talking about how to prepare for a public relations crisis that can cause reputational damage and what can be done. I always like to find examples that might resonate with an audience and I found this one which I still can not get out of my head. In the checklist I provided attendees regarding preparing for a crisis, I mentioned the importance of establishing a chain of command. It is important that everyone knows exactly what to say and who should be saying it when crisis strikes. This control over a chain of command starts with the person who answers the phone! Two weeks before I arrived in Minneapolis, I had come across an article that described exactly how it should NOT be done. The article was about how some workers at JFK airport filed a complaint with the TSA about how they were being rushed to do their jobs to avoid schedule delays. And the jobs they get paid to do are important. One quarter of these workers -- security agents -- employed by this small business complained that they were unable to search flights in enough time to discover if there were any weapons, drugs or explosives left behind after the passengers left. These agents are supposed to pull down every tray, check every overhead bin, probe seat pockets and use metal detectors to make sure the planes are safe and secure as mandated by the federal government after 9/11. Since airlines are very concerned about flight delays and on-time arrivals, these employees felt that they were being given little time to do their jobs. As one employee said, they were being asked to do their jobs in three minutes when the minimum amount of time needed was 25 minutes.
Here's what stunned me. When the company that employs these agents was asked about the complaints, the pr director responded by saying that the employees were lying. "It is impossible for these allegations to really take place." Here is an example of a company caught unaware and responding poorly. Within a few words, the director put the company's reputation at severe risk. When The New York Times calls to find out information about an alleged complaint, the company spokesperson should have said that they would get right back to the reporter with a response and more information. Saying that one's own employees were lying just does not cut it. From what I can gather, the PR director said that the employees were trying to unionize and therefore intent on aggravating the situation. Whatever the reason or excuse, this was quite the example of self-inflicting repuational harm. One for the books!