Why Angry Arnold Should Handle Your Crisis PR

Sep 20, 2023

When looking for a company to illustrate bad PR, United Airlines is an easy choice.

From 2009’s lesson in the power of viral video (“United Breaks Guitars”) to suffocating puppies, United can be counted upon to do the wrong thing and then make it worse through horrible PR.

Perhaps its worst blunder came in 2017 when a bloodied passenger refused to be bumped and was dragged off a flight. After the video went viral, then-United CEO Oscar Munoz called the passenger “disruptive” and referred to the forcible eviction as “re-accommodating the customers.” It took a firestorm of criticism before Munoz issued a more sincere-sounding apology, but by then the damage was done.

I wasn’t privy to what happened at United that led to such horrible PR decisions, but I do know who could have prevented them – Angry Arnold. That’s my term for the outsider reality check missing from too many corporate responses to PR crises. Here’s how it could have worked at United:

The moment the passenger video went viral, United’s PR team should have designated one of its highest-ranking members as Angry Arnold. He should have been put in a room with a laptop and the following instructions: “Forget you work for United. You’re just one of the flying public and you freaking hate United. It’s lost your luggage, delayed your flights, charged you for carry-ons and forced you to squeeze into ever-shrinking seats. And, by the way, it’s making obscene profits. Now, watch on repeat this video of a dazed passenger being dragged down the aisle.”

Angry Arnold would have been left in isolation to grow ever more furious at United while the rest of the PR team worked with the C-suite to write that self-serving statement from Munoz. When it was done, they could have slid it under the door to Angry Arnold and waited for his reaction.

And he would have kicked down the door, screaming, “Are you f*@%%^ kidding me? Blaming the passenger? ‘Re-accommodating’ customers? What kind of bull*$#@ is this?”

And then United would have known Munoz’s statement wasn’t going to fly with the public.

It’s not just United that could have used an Angry Arnold to save itself from itself. So could Southwest Airlines, Facebook, Wells Fargo, Uber, and other companies that have compounded their problems by responding weakly to PR crises.

That’s because Angry Arnold’s job is to take the perspective of the public that, ultimately, will decide how well the company weathers its PR crisis. If he doesn’t buy the company’s response, neither will customers, vendors and the media.

Too often, crisis PR is captive PR. Everyone on the internal team wants to help the company in its moment of danger, but, paradoxically, that prevents them from doing the best job at it. They’re hunkered down in the corporate bunker, trying to manage the crisis without admitting fault or being too hard on the company or its leaders. Lawyers get in the mix, counseling against admitting error and watering down language as only they can. As a result, the initial response is often inadequate and defensive and makes a bad situation worse.

Angry Arnold does not have that captive perspective. He’s not going to cut the business any slack or worry about making the CEO sweat. He wants the company to come clean, fix the problem, take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again, punish those responsible, provide restitution, and beg for forgiveness.

Of course, it’s not easy to turn an internal PR employee into an Angry Arnold. He or she might be reluctant to offer frank opinions or go against the C-suite consensus, and might struggle to achieve that critical, independent perspective.

That’s why many companies benefit from using an outside agency for crisis communications and PR. While still loyal to the client, an agency has the independence and perspective to better assess what needs to be done to satisfy the public, customers, stakeholders etc. while also protecting the client.

Unleashing Angry Arnold is no fun. He bruises egos, calls for heads to roll and forces companies to do things they don’t want to do. But he should be a necessary part of any crisis PR team, even if he’s a trusted outsider.

Remember, the C-suite and the PR team are not going to determine if the crisis is handled correctly or not. The public and customers will, and listening to Angry Arnold is the best way to gauge their reaction.