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Rules vs. Relationships


Just Because Small Print in a Contract Says That a Company Can Do Something Doesn’t Make It Right.

Last month, United Airlines used a procedure called “bumping” to remove a passenger from one of its jets before takeoff. Most of us have seen cellphone videos of the incident. In the process the 69-year-old passenger suffered a broken nose and had two teeth knocked out. United CEO Oscar Munoz later claimed that the forceful removal of a paying customer was an established procedure. The company’s stock fell 4 percent over the next week.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this, but perhaps the most important one is that just because small print in a contract says that a company can do something doesn’t make it right.

Businesses are social constructions. Yes, they have mission statements, budgets, operating procedures, policies and contracts, but documents don’t make a company, people do. Employees who are in constant contact with customers understand this.

Most salespeople will tell you that relationships are what drive their business dealings. And successful managers understand that it is relationships that are mostly responsible for producing motivated and productive work groups.

Common sense and compassion should have guided the actions of the United crew. Instead they were following their Contract of Carriage, which states that on an oversold flight no one will be denied boarding until airline personnel have first asked for volunteers in exchange for compensation.

Apparently, once the crew asks and, if no one volunteers, then passengers can be removed from their seats. Okay yes, maybe they followed the rules. But no, that doesn’t make it all right.

Fly the Friendly Skies

United Airlines seemed to understand the human side of the equation when they launched their “Fly the Friendly Skies” marketing theme in 1965. If customers have several products or services from which to choose and all at approximately the same price, then even the most insensitive of companies has to realize that the quality of products and services becomes a deciding factor. So United branded itself as the friendly alternative.

Branding by marketing professionals is usually based on research on customer expectations and desires. If customers want a friendly, family atmosphere, then you promise them the friendly skies.

A public relations approach to branding would be more inclusive and would take into account actual human behavior. It would look at the actual corporate culture and attempt to use communication processes to make adjustments and shift the organization into a stance that it could sustain.

The mission statement, hiring process, orientation process, open door policy, company publications, and the reward and recognition processes would all work to recruit and promote people who are actually friendly.

Friendly is a relative term, but basically friendly means that you don’t boot someone’s guitar case across the tarmac, or drag a paying passenger kicking and screaming from his seat.

Socrates Speaks

Socrates said, “The way to a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.” In the early 20th century, one of the founding fathers of public relations, Ivy Lee, told his clients, “no publicity without good works.” What they are saying is that you can say whatever you want in your contracts and advertising, but if you don’t live up to your words, they don’t mean anything.

So, does a quarry need to account for human needs and sensibilities? If you are not in the service industry, is it okay to bark orders at employees, have your lawyers look for loopholes in zoning legislation and put clauses into contracts that allow you to provide customers something less than they expected?

Well, it depends. Do you want to keep customers? Do you want referrals? Would you like to hire and retain the best employees? Are long-term profits important? Are you tired of fighting with the community and paying fines? Do your employees have cell phones with recording devices on them?


Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..