By Steven Pelham and Brooke Smith
Every year, the Arthur W. Page Society teams up with the Institute for Public Relations to hold a case study competition between students from accredited business and communications schools to see who can craft the most relevant, comprehensive case study. This year, we were the grand prize winners for the case study involving the incident where Dr. David Dao was dragged off of United Airlines flight 3411. We were the first team from Brigham Young University to win the competition’s grand prize, the Jack Koten Case Study Award.
Writing the Case
Early last year, we approached one of our professors, Dr. Christopher Wilson about taking an independent study class in PR and leadership. Dr. Wilson agreed to hold the private class for the two of us with one caveat—our team had to win the case study competition. Excited, and a little intimidated, we agreed to take on this challenge and began evaluating possible cases. Ultimately, we chose the United case for how relevant it is to the field of corporate communications and how it highlights a few issues facing communications, such as growing stakeholder empowerment and the extinction of private internal communications. Once we decided what to write about, the process of crafting a winning case study began.
One of the challenges that we faced was being able to approach the case from an objective perspective. We both remember when everything happened on Flight 3411 and we had definite opinions about the incident as we began working on the case. Surprisingly, the more we learned the more our viewpoints were challenged. We were reminded how important it is for PR practitioners to collect data objectively to ensure that the right story is being told. While working on the case, we pushed ourselves not only to be creative in our writing but in our research methods. Remaining objective and creative in our research, we were able to get a full picture of what really happened from the perspective of all stakeholders.
This case touches many major issues in PR such as corporate culture, internal communications and stakeholder empowerment. United is not an organization that functions on its own; it relies on partners at individual airports, security agencies and partnering airlines to execute its daily operations. Having these many organizations makes it difficult to ensure a cohesive culture and message to convey to stakeholders. Additionally, at the time of the incident, the head of communications did not report to the CEO but instead reported to someone in HR. This organizational setup exacerbated the issue and added to internal complexities. United also did not treat its internal messaging as something that could become an external message—this became a major problem when a memo to employees was leaked to the public.
This incident was not a new thing for United. United has had a turbulent past with incidents like “United Breaks Guitars,” “Leggings Gate,” and several more major incidents even occurred earlier this year after we finished writing the case. This shows that although United is trying to improve experiences with its stakeholders, it has yet to fully listen to all stakeholders. Social media empowered frustrated stakeholders to take their experiences with the airline to a worldwide stage—something that United wasn’t prepared to handle.
Along with the prestigious award, we received a cash prize and a trip to New York to attend the Page Society’s spring seminar with the theme, “Are you Future-Proofed? Disruption, Innovation and the CCO.” We are honored to have met some of the greatest minds in academic and professional corporate communications and to have heard from various panels about where the future of communications is going. Being at the seminar reminded us how complex and rapidly changing the corporate communications field is.
It is a world where organizations must adapt or suffer great losses, as we saw with United Airlines when it was unprepared for how powerful stakeholders’ online opinions could be. We got to talk about this and other details of our case in a Facebook Live interview at the seminar. The Arthur W. Page Society itself recognizes how important it is to adapt as they introduced its new brand, “Page,” at the seminar. We are honored to have put our school’s name on the map for this competition and aim to continue pushing forward as future professionals and scholars.
Steven Pelham and Brooke Smith will receive their M.A. degrees in Mass Communications this spring at Brigham Young University.