What Not to Do During a PR Crisis: The United Airlines Edition

by Belfort Group | Thought Leadership
April 11, 2017

“Don’t make a bad situation worse.”

When it comes to a public relations crisis, mitigation is usually the main goal. Something bad has already happened. It’s out there, people know about it, and there’s no taking it back. But while all of that is out of your hands, the one thing you can control is your response and your efforts to mitigate the fallout.

Which brings us to the unfortunate case of United Airlines.

It was bad for United when video surfaced of security officers forcibly removing a doctor from an airplane to make room for United employees. But it got worse when United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a terribly tone deaf statement.

How much worse? As of Tuesday afternoon, United’s stock had dropped $1.4 billion. That’s billion – with a “B.”

To call this an epic public relations fail would be quite the understatement. You’ve got a customer who paid for his ticket and who was already seated on the airplane. When United sought to make room for four of its employees, they initially offered a $400 voucher with no success. Then they upped the ante to $800, but still had no takers. Instead of increasing the price to entice people, United announced that four passengers would be randomly selected to be taken off the plane.

But this one man, who said he was a doctor who had patients to see on Monday morning, didn’t want to go. And when he refused to give up the seat he had paid for and already inhabited, security was called. They forced the man out of his seat and ended up smacking his head off an armrest, at which point his limp body was dragged through the cabin and off the plane with blood streaming down his face.

And all of it caught on tape by passengers.

At this point, with video instantly uploaded to social media, United was going to take a hit no matter what. You can’t remove a paying customer from a flight after roughing him up to make room for your own employees and not pay a price with negative press. The only thing left to do was issue an apologetic statement taking responsibility for what happened, take your lumps, and begin the arduous process of rebuilding trust.

But instead, Munoz termed what happened as “re-accommodating” the passenger, and then issued an internal email to United employees (which, of course, was eventually published by the media) claiming his staff “followed established procedures” and even called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.”

Wrong move.

The Internet loves outrage and for one brief moment in time, it seemed the entirety of the Internet was united (pun very much intended) in justifiable anger at how this passenger was treated. Although Munoz was already in a no-win situation, he extended the shelf life of the story by essentially blaming the victim and focusing on the airline’s legal right to remove passengers at will instead of appearing contrite.

When you’re in a situation like this, be human. Understand that millions of people will see a video of a paying customer stripped of his seat and physically injured in order to accommodate airline employees, and sympathize with him completely. If BG were advising Munoz, we would’ve had him apologize for how the man was treated, promise a complete and thorough internal investigation, and made it clear Munoz would clear his schedule to personally address protocol changes going forward to ensure this never happens again.

Staking your claim to the legal high ground does you no good if everyone hates you and is vowing to go out of their way never to use your airline again. Even worse, United just went through a PR crisis last month in which they forced two teenage girls to change out of leggings if they wanted to take a non-revenue flight, which many saw as a form of body-shaming. That’s two major national strikes in a remarkably short period of time.

Leaders like Munoz need to remember how limited spin is in the age of video. Claiming the man was the problem when multiple passengers have video of officers dragging his bloody body out of the cabin only exacerbated the problem, and added “arrogant” as a descriptor to a laundry list of negative adjectives being applied to Munoz and United.

Now, Munoz has released a third official statement, apologizing and taking “full responsibility” for the situation. If you find yourself having to make a third official statement on a crisis- and it’s not because the situation has developed any further- it means your first two statements were not good enough. It’s better to take the time to make the right statement the first time. Otherwise, you’re the one putting yourself back into the headlines and extending the lifespan of the crisis.

Our advice to avoid this happening to your brand:

  1. A good offense is better than a good defense when it comes to crisis: having good policies and service in place reduces your likelihood of getting into a crisis.
  2. Know when to apologize, and make it sincere.
  3. Take the time to make the right statement the first time.
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