Jennifer Janson is the author of the Reputation Playbook, published by Harriman House, and an expert in the field of reputation management. Her book has been featured in The Sunday Times and The Globe & Mail among others, and Jennifer is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal. Jennifer owns and runs UK-based Six Degrees, a specialist reputation management consultancy. She is also a member of the UK’s Business Superbrands Council 2014/15/16, and the trustee of a South African charity, Afrika Tikkun.mail the author
ITL #202 What a doctor looks like: lessons from the Delta debacle10 months, 2 weeks ago
“Oh no sweetie put your hand down, we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel.”
According to widespread media reports, this was the dismissive, patronizing rebuttal Doctor Tamika Cross received while on a Delta flight to Minneapolis in October 2016. A passenger was unwell and airline personnel asked if there was a doctor on board. As her professional training warrants, Tamika ‘jumped into doctor mode’, volunteering her help and was promptly shut down as a flight attendant didn’t believe that she was who she said she was.
As well as the obvious gender and race-specific prejudices and subsequent discussions that have arisen from this situation, what I found most interesting was the reaction on social media.
Dr Cross posted her experience on Facebook and it went viral. She later also submitted an official complaint against Delta for discrimination, but by then the real damage to the company was done.
In just a few hours, Delta found itself at the centre of a formidable crisis.
Social media wildfire
As of writing this article, there are 88k likes, 20k comments and 48k shares on Dr Cross’s post. The social media wildfire burned furiously as black female doctors all over the world stood in solidarity with her – tweeting, Instagramming and Facebook-posting selfies with the hashtag ‘#whatadoctorlookslike’.
Where did it all go wrong? Clearly the individual working for Delta made a grave error. So who is accountable in this situation? If we scratch the surface, is there a more substantial cultural issue at play in the company?
Before we play the blame game, let’s go to the root of the problem. Behavior.
For many people, PR and communication are interchangeable terms. It’s all about getting your message out there to the people that matter most. But when it comes to building a positive, enduring reputation, it’s not communication that should be the primary focus of your business, but rather purpose, values and behavior. Communication comes once all three of those are aligned.
A few years ago, I found myself frustrated. Frustrated first on behalf of communications people trying to do a good job but hitting road blocks within their businesses. Frustrated second with the CEOs of these businesses who were refusing to take their reputation seriously in an era when the average person in the street could make their views on a brand heard via social media. So I interviewed some 20 CEOs of large multinational businesses in an effort to identify the patterns of behavior that led to a strong reputation.
If the results of these interviews are to be believed, there is indeed a formula for a good reputation, which goes like this:
(Purpose + Values) x Behavior + Communication = Reputation.
Let me explain.
Having a team (whether numbering in the tens, hundreds, thousands or hundreds of thousands of people) aligned behind a common purpose is a very powerful thing. This is at the core of author Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. His contention is that it is the ‘why’ that defines your business, not the ‘what’ or the ‘how’. It is a theory which I wholeheartedly support, and which my research supported too.
Having core values in a business is management best practice 101. But a purpose-led business will ensure that those values aren’t simply stickers on a wall or a page in the annual report or website. The business will have a culture that thrives on those values and that hires and fires in line with them.
The great multiplier when it comes to building a solid reputation is the behavior that underpins the value and purpose. Behavior covers everything from frontline staff interactions with customers, suppliers and shareholders to the quality and customer experience of products and services. For example, if one of your core values is all about ‘delighting’ your customers, but one of the products in your range has an average customer review of one out of five stars, you are letting yourself down badly.
This is where I think the Delta story gets interesting. You don’t have to look far to discover the airline’s purpose and values. Delta’s ‘Rules of the Road’ say:
“Strong core values and a clear set of unifying behaviors provide a solid foundation for Delta’s culture. Our values are the basis for everything we do. When Delta people encounter situations, they use their values and professionalism, along with training and experience to guide their actions and decisions.”
Its core values are:
Honesty – always tell the truth
Integrity – always keep your deals
Respect – don’t hurt anyone
Perseverance – try harder than all our competitors – never give up
Servant Leadership – care for our customers, our community and each other.
Furthermore, Delta has an extensive list of ‘most important behaviors’. Let’s focus on just a few:
Whether we realize it or not, the greatest reputational risk arises when behavior is out of line with core values. And based solely on an outsider’s perspective, this certainly looks to be the issue in the Delta incident.
Delta did take to Facebook to respond directly to comments and questions about the allegations. It also posted a brief statement on its website (at the time of writing, the latest post is October 2016) saying it is undertaking an investigation. By traditional measures, that ticks a few standard ‘crisis management’ boxes, even if the comments did sound slightly robotic and formulaic. But when a hashtag has been created to highlight an event involving your company, and is going viral, it’s probably time to ditch traditional box checking (ok, not completely, but it can’t stop there), and put more robust plans in place.
What should Delta do?
First of all, this issue goes way beyond communications, and I would hope the CEO Ed Bastian is involved in discussions around the issue raised by Dr Cross.
The easy thing for Delta to do will be to return to ‘business as usual’ once the media and social media storm has blown over. If I was on the board of Delta I would be asking what we learned from this incident and what we have put in place to minimize the possibility of it happening again.
Credit where credit is due. In November 2016, Delta banned a customer from its aircraft for life after he hurled a tirade of abuse at passengers and staff on board. The company is also refunding the full fare for all other passengers on board the flight, according to news reports. The move was led by CEO Ed Bastian after video of the incident circulated.