Many medium sized companies wonder whether they need a Corporate Communications Manager. After all, engaging clients about a product or service is done by the Marketing Manager. The answer is a definite yes, because corporate communications deals with the fundamentals of a company: its mission, vision, reputation and corporate culture.
Let’s have a look at the airline industry. This is a highly competitive industry where direct contact with consumers is a business fundamental. Everyone will remember last month’s trouble at United Airlines. Facing a last moment request to fly a replacement crew to Louisville, United staff at O’Hare Airport decided to take off four passengers who had already boarded and been seated. Three passengers accepted compensation payment. A fourth passenger could not be found. United ground crew then picked a passenger and ordered to have him forcibly removed from the aircraft. The decision turned into a PR nightmare for United. Twitter was set alight with tweets and videos, its (already battered) customer relations perception was shattered. The initial response by CEO Oscar Munoz didn’t help, as he apologised “for having to re-accomodate passengers”. Munoz was forced to change his story several times until he accepted full responsibility for the forceable removal. In the end, the incident cost United much more than the out-of-court settlement with the unlucky passenger. United’s reputation was affected. Reputations take a long time to build, but can be destroyed by events like this one in seconds. Especially when they contain explosive and emotional video material that goes viral.
All this could have been avoided. Ground crew was informed at a very late stage that the replacement crew of four had to be given seats on an aircraft that was already overbooked. The problem was, however, that all passengers had already boarded and were seated. Any really customer-oriented official should have refused the request. It should have been clear that finding four volunteers to be rebooked onto the next available flight the day after would be near impossible. The options therefore should have been to see whether the replacement crew could be booked on a Louisville flight with another airline, even if that would cost United, or to arrange another replacement crew. Instead, the official who made the fatal decision was taught to operate within very narrow guidelines that contrasted sharply with what the airline should stand for. The more exposure companies have with end consumers, the more accomodating they should be, even at a cost.
Many other airlines have their customer focus right and live this culture in planned campaigns and small decisions. One of the industry’s best planned and executed campaigns was WestJet’s 2013 Christmas Miracle.
And then you also have decisions that are taken with little time at hand. Take for example this story about a SouthWest passenger. She had already boarded her Chicago to Columbus, OH flight and turned off her phone when her husband tried to reach her urgently: their son had been taken to hospital. The husband got through to SouthWest and a chain of actions was set in motion: ground crew decided to have the taxiing aircraft return to the terminal, rebooked the passenger onto a direct flight to Denver and arranged for her to go to her son’s hospital. All free of charge.
Clients are not just interested in your company’s products or services. They are also interested in your brand’s reputation, your mission and vision. How do you approach them? Are you in business with the grace of your customer or do your clients owe you? Your corporate culture has the potential to lure or repel potential clients. It’s up to your corporate communications team to communicate that culture to all internal stakeholders and to check whether your staff live that culture, especially when dealing with clients.