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Empathy is underrated

Updated: Feb 19, 2018


Negative exposures can cause problems for companies but they are not always defining moments, the responses to these crises often decide the ultimate outcome.


Effective communicators relate to their audience on a personal level. So why do some executives respond to incidents with distant statements that infuriate rather than empathize or at least show a basic understanding of what caused the problem?


Earlier this year, United Airways CEO Oscar Munoz turned a now-infamous incident into a full-blown crisis when he released the following statement following the forced removal of a passenger from a soon-to-depart flight: "I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers."


The fallout was swift and brutal, especially after it was revealed the passenger sustained a concussion as he was violently dragged from the plane. Munoz's statement showed a lack of empathy for not only the concussed passenger, but any flier who has been bumped from a flight due to any myriad of reasons. It struck a chord across a wide cross-section of the public and led to a series of apologies and the revelation that it never occurred to the airline to reprimand or terminate the employees responsible that only further damaged United's standing.


When compared to an apology posted to Facebook over the weekend by real estate developer (and Cleveland Cavaliers owner) Dan Gilbert, after outrage over his firm's advertisement in the lobby of a landmark building in downtown Detroit showing an entirely white crowd with the words "how we see Detroit," the difference is stark.


"We screwed up," Gilbert admitted, adding the mural was "tone deaf, in poor taste and does not reflect a single value or philosophy that we stand for." He explained that only part of the planned advertisement was put up and showed pictures of what it would like like when finished but still ended the campaign and promised "we'll be better at this next time."

Instead of standing behind a wall of corporate doublespeak and giving a hollow apology like Munoz, Gilbert took swift action, apologized for the error and vowed to be more in-tune with the demographics of a city with a population that is about 83 percent African-American and has a long history of racial tension.


When any company, firm or individual faces a crisis, their response is often remembered far more than the original incident. Had United at least looked into possible disciplinary action against the responsible employee(s) and shown concern for the passenger put in the hospital as a result of the violent removal, the public response may have been far different.

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© 2018 by RGPR, LLC; New York, NY

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