Business Monday

CEOs: Communication, cool heads are keys to avoiding public relations nightmares

In this Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, file photo, travelers check in at the United Airlines ticket counter at Terminal 1 in O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. After a man was dragged off a United Express flight on April 9, United Airlines becomes the butt of jokes online and on late-night TV. Travel and public-relations experts say United fumbled the situation from the start, but it’s impossible to know if the damage is temporary or lasting.
In this Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, file photo, travelers check in at the United Airlines ticket counter at Terminal 1 in O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. After a man was dragged off a United Express flight on April 9, United Airlines becomes the butt of jokes online and on late-night TV. Travel and public-relations experts say United fumbled the situation from the start, but it’s impossible to know if the damage is temporary or lasting. AP

This week’s question to the Miami Herald CEO Roundtable: United Airlines is still getting backlash for how it handled an incident with a passenger on a flight. How would your company mitigate a controversial situation with a client?


No matter who was to blame on this one, United Airlines needed to jump on this immediately, owning up to handling the matter inappropriately. Take control and try to make a bad situation better by personalizing the face of big business. A review of how the airline handles this policy is in order and — lack of competition or not — overselling flights is fraught with PR nightmares like this playing out for the world to see.

Steven N. Adkins, president and CEO, Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce


It all begins with the company culture. Our culture is such that we would acquiesce to our client before any issue escalates and becomes so controversial. That said, mistakes happen. If we make a mistake or inappropriately handle a situation, we would ‘own it’ immediately instead of taking a defensive position, and we would move quickly to make things right.

Ron Antevy, president and CEO, e-Builder


Because we work with parents and their special children, every single situation we encounter is sensitive and important. Our responses focus on three things: we listen, we show empathy and we do whatever is possible to solve the issue. We may not always resolve all of a client’s concerns, but we make sure the client knows we care and are committed to their family. Customer service is not a result, it is an attitude.

Maria Arizmendi, president, Progressive Behavioral Science


The best mitigation practice would be to apply one’s core values. In our case, the principles of transparency, honesty and forthrightness would guide our actions. Efforts to deny or downplay such controversies typically result in negative backlash. When confronted with a challenging situation, people truly appreciate when one is direct and straight up with a plan to move forward.

Noah Breakstone, founder and managing partner, BTI Partners


Most importantly, be honest and straight forward. If you made a mistake, say so and indicate how you will change things so that the same or similar mistake won’t reoccur, then implement changes required to ensure that the same mistake or others like it won’t happen again.

Bowman Brown, chairman, Shutts & Bowen


As a law firm handling immigration and family law, our representation really impacts our clients’ lives. To mitigate any hiccups during the representation, it is important for us to set expectations at the beginning. It is always best to under-promise and over-deliver! If there is a problem with a client’s matter, we aim to keep them informed every step of the way. There is nothing worse than for the client to know there is an issue and that they did not have the opportunity to help mitigate it.

Patricia Elizee, managing partner, Elizee Law Firm


The incident is a perfect example of how one mistake can torpedo a lot of the positives associated with a company. It shows how important it is to stay focused on your customer. That is the challenge for any management team — creating and operating a culture where your customer always comes first.

Richard Fain, chairman and CEO, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.


First of all, I hope that my company never treats a client in the way that United treated its passenger, as we are a customer-centric company that always bears in mind that a client is the one who pays your salary. With all that said, I would personally phone my client to apologize, as I have always done. In my opinion, a CEO should be the first one to apologize. It’s one of the few things that you shouldn’t delegate.

Ismael El-Qudsi, CEO, Internet República/


While Miami Jewish Health strives to provide the highest level of customer satisfaction, the reality is that issues will periodically arise. Service recovery is the key — be proactive if potential issues are known, immediately respond to the customer, preferably in person, and be sure the communication is sincere and honest. Oftentimes, the client is just wanting to know that the organization cares. Don’t make promises you can’t deliver and be sure to follow up periodically with the client to maintain the communications.

Jeffrey Freimark, president and CEO, Miami Jewish Health Systems


First, you need to gather all the facts and do your due diligence in order to protect your brand and be fair to all who are involved — and if this is going to take some time, be transparent and set expectations to those affected, your internal stakeholders and the public. You cannot be afraid to own a mistake if your investigation finds that your employees were at fault. You must take the appropriate action to ensure that future incidents can be prevented through education and training. You must apologize that it occurred in the first place and do whatever you can to make it right with the customers involved. Communicating information clearly, concisely and effectively is paramount throughout the process. Finally, you must use these types of situations as “teaching moments” and an opportunity to learn.

George Hanbury, president and CEO, Nova Southeastern University


There are no substitutes for cool heads and calm conversation. It’s important to hire and develop staff with solid judgment who understand that customer service is paramount and that creative thinking must be utilized to arrive at win-win solutions for everyone involved.

James Haj, president and CEO, The Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade County


First, make sure the individual is attended to and, if necessary, address any medical needs. Immediately start an investigation that includes meeting face-to-face with the guest to “lower the temperature” and ensure we have a clear, unfiltered understanding of the facts — positive or negative. If we erred, admit the mistake and apologize, find common ground and a solution. We also would conduct a thorough review to determine how and why the situation occurred in the first place and make needed changes at once.

Bob Hohenstein, president and CEO, Miami-Dade County Youth Fair and Exposition


Our clients are a top priority at CBRE, and we are proud to uphold the highest standards in the way we do business. Our employees don’t just work and live by these standards, they are the cornerstone of our RISE corporate values: Respect, Integrity, Service and Excellence. The way we respond to and manage challenging conflicts is not only a set of corporate policies and procedures — it’s a fundamental factor in defining our success. If a controversial situation with a client was to take place, it would be essential to understand the situation thoroughly from both sides to avoid making abrupt and uninformed decisions. In this process, we take a transparent approach with our stakeholders to ensure a clear perspective on our point of view.

Arden Karson, senior managing director, CBRE


It’s important that companies gather the facts before taking action. When there’s reason to take ownership of a problem, resist the urge to deflect and pass judgment. Listen to the customer first, do your due diligence, research how to mitigate any adverse impacts, fix the problem and then learn from the situation. Most importantly, adapt your processes in an effort to prevent future mishaps.

David Martin, president and co-founder, Terra


Operating a marina is essentially a hospitality business — servicing our clients is our primary responsibility. We are in constant communication with our clients, beginning with an in-person meeting where we set clear expectations of what is included in monthly dockage and storage fees. That puts us in position to exceed expectations down the road. Contrast our approach with airlines, which lay out terms in fine print that’s difficult to read. By maintaining strong lines of communication throughout the year, we’ve been able to avoid serious confrontations.

Aabad Melwani, president, Rickenbacker Marina and managing principal, Marina PARC


As with any complaint, we would do our due diligence in compliance with our policies and procedures and conduct investigations as necessary with the goal of finding a fair and equitable solution. This would also be a situation in which we would stress the continuous education of our employees, especially with regards to critical thinking, customer service and soft skills such as effective communication and de-escalation of events. Broward College places emphasis on these skills in its courses and offers its employees various avenues for continuous development.

Avis Proctor, vice president of academic affairs and president, North Campus at Broward College


Admit wrongdoing, quickly. The cover-up is always worse than the crime. Nobody’s perfect — we’re all trying our best and we all make mistakes from time to time. It’s those people who can own up to their mistakes, and work toward a positive resolution for all, who thrive. You always have an opportunity to turn a bad situation into a positive.

Matthew “Matt” Rieger, president and CEO, Housing Trust Group


The only way to handle an incident is through open and honest dialogue, both with clients and employees. You’ve got to be proactive and act immediately — with a sincere acknowledgment, a plan for rectifying the mistake, and an inquiry into why it happened. It’s the only way to ensure mistakes aren’t repeated. Of course, there’s also a shorter answer: apologize.

Jackie Soffer, co-chairman and CEO, Turnberry Associates


The United Airlines incident is an important reminder to all of us, no matter what sector of business, that a hospitality-first approach is the best marketing out there. Our tenants and owners on Lincoln Road strive to achieve this each day. The BID recently partnered with urban hospitality firm Block by Block to provide concierge and defensive cleaning services to enhance the overall experience on Lincoln Road. There is no substitute for a hospitality-first approach.

Ivannia Van Arman, executive director, Lincoln Road Business Improvement District

The Miami Herald CEO Roundtable is a weekly feature that appears in Business Monday of the Miami Herald. Recent questions have included:

▪ Meet the new Miami Herald CEO Roundtable

▪ Ahh, the first job. CEOs learned valuable lessons on the bottom rung

▪ It’s getting harder for employees and CEOs to disconnect while on vacation

▪ Florida’s legislators must act on economy and education, CEOs say

▪ Most CEOs provide paid internships, and everyone benefits

▪ Local firms rich in generational immigrants, CEO say, but deportation efforts worry some

▪ Long hours at the office? CEOs say how they avoid burnout

▪ CEOs prefer balance when dealing with a defiant employee

▪ The most important issue facing South Florida this year? CEOs say it’s traffic

▪ Have you been to Cuba? CEOs discuss business and travel opportunities on the island

▪ CEOs discuss their resolutions for the New Year

▪ CEOs: Trump, ugly politics among the biggest surprises of 2016

▪ CEOs’ top request for Trump’s first 100 days: ‘Unity’

▪ CEOs won’t tolerate ugly comments in the workplace

▪ CEOs assess South Florida’s economy for 2017

▪ Did Obamacare hurt your business? South Florida CEOs respond