ITL #202 What a doctor looks like: lessons from the Delta debacle

6 years, 2 months ago


A flight attendant’s unwillingness to believe a black woman was a medical doctor is a shocking example of the kind of crisis that occurs when a company’s purpose, values and behavior are out of alignment. By Jennifer Janson.

“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.


Purpose-led business

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:

  • Listen closely and communicate openly, honestly and directly encourage change and innovation
  • Embrace diverse people, thinking and styles
  • Treat each other with dignity and respect.


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.


  1. Ask yourself: ‘what is the right thing to do?’. Bearing in mind the purpose and values that the company holds dear – and with a major investor like Warren Buffet, I have no doubt they do strive to do the right thing – but action needs to be taken in line with those values. What the incident with Dr Cross has uncovered appears to be the sort of subtle racism experienced by so many people every day. The statement on Delta’s own website appears to be laying the groundwork for a rather weak defense of its employee when it would appear pretty clear that the flight attendant made a judgment based on race, gender, age or all three. She needs to learn a lesson: that sort of judgement is not in line with Delta’s values. How it does that is up to the company, but as difficult as it might be, the right thing to do may well be to admit that the flight attendant’s behaviour is not what they would expect, rather than finding ways to defend it.


  1. Apologize. Whether intentional or not, Dr Cross experienced a form of discrimination (whether based on age, race or gender) and deserves an apology.


  1. Take steps to avoid this happening again. Of course mistakes happen, especially in a company as big as Delta. But now is a great opportunity to ensure all employees are aware of the impact that individual actions can have on the reputation (and ultimately the bottom line) of the company. Now that one high-profile incident has occurred, people will be looking out for other issues. Now is the time to be on red alert – company culture training, conflict resolution training and communication classes could all be worthwhile. Also, how about inviting Dr Cross to speak at the company’s next global leadership gathering? If Delta holds its values to be true, what can it do to reinforce these values at what is an uncomfortable time?


  1. Address the issue. Delta says in its own statement that the normal procedure is, “when an individual’s medical identification isn’t available, [in-flight staff] are instructed to ask questions such as where medical training was received or whether an individual has a business card or other documentation and ultimately to use their best judgment.” Maybe it can introduce a more objective measure. Consider changing the process. Whether it’s giving all customers who are doctors a special card or introducing a special symbol on their boarding passes – in an era ripe with innovation, perhaps there is a better way?


  1. Education. It’s hard to write an article like this without noting that the leadership committee at Delta is made up of predominantly white males. In itself, this may make it more difficult to keep diversity at the top of the business agenda, no matter how well-intentioned the company’s leaders may be. If Delta really does want to embrace ‘diverse people, thinking and styles’ perhaps there should be a push to do just that at the upper echelons of the business?


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.

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The Author

Jennifer Janson

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.

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