United offers a primer in how NOT to handle a crisis

A lack of timeliness, focusing on its own staff instead of consumers and using corporate-speak made the mea culpa come across as uncaring, says one PR pro.

Many crisis communicators are dishing about the handling (mishandling) of the recent United Airlines Flight 3411.

The airline’s overbooking, along with its forced removal of a passenger, caused news media outlets and social media users to rage against United, with many calling for a boycott.

The incident and backlash have spread outside the United States: Social media users in China are criticizing the airline, and many have said they will refuse to fly with the carrier.

Asking for volunteers to give up an overbooked flight is commonplace, but this tweet by Merriam-Webster underlines many consumers’ ire with United:

On Monday, United’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, issued the following statement:

Munoz also sent a letter to employees, and though he said that ‘there are lessons we can learn,’ he ultimately stood behind the team’s actions:

Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.


Examining United’s crisis response

The airline has suffered millions of dollars in reputational damage, and it probably will find itself on the uncomfortable end of a legal settlement.

Worthy of further review is Munoz’s statement, along with what constitutes a good apology in a crisis.

The response was issued a full day after the incident occurred—and after the news and social media firestorms were burning uncontrollably. United broke the first rule of crisis response: Respond quickly, and guide the narrative.

The apology itself left much to be desired. Let’s parse it:

1. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.”

Don’t start an apology by feeling sorry for yourself. The event likely was far more upsetting to the passenger involved and the others onboard.

This recalls the much-criticized response of Lululemon’s chief executive when he apologized to his team (instead of to customers) about the company’s see-through yoga pants debacle, and the former chief executive of BP, Tony Hayward, who wanted his “life back” after his company polluted the Gulf of Mexico in a massive oil spill.

If a crisis has hurt others, don’t make it all about you.

2. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

There was nothing about the video that seemed to suggest any kind of “accommodation” was made. Truthfully, it looked pretty darned unaccommodating.

Overbooking is the secondary issue here. Though it might not be pleasant, anyone who is a regular air traveler knows that overbooking happens—frequently—but almost never rises to this level of scrutiny.

The measure of airlines that overbook is how they handle it. This manner clearly did not measure up.

3. “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”

Moving with urgency doesn’t seem to fit with waiting 24 hours to respond. Further, when there is damning footage and passenger accounts of what occurred, the stock PR answer of “detailed review” falls flat.

4. “We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

This qualifies as another “stock” answer when something more meaningful is required.

Most pundits interpret this to mean, “How much are we going to have to pay to settle this colossal mess?” United’s monetary damages will go far beyond the involved passenger or other passengers on the flight.

There was nothing in Munoz’s response that suggests the company feels bad about its treatment of this passenger. What the airline evidently regrets it that there was video of the incident—and that it got “caught.”

When there is video—whether it tells the full story or not—communicators must understand and acknowledge the effects the images have on the viewer. The video was, by anyone’s standards, disturbing at least and violent at best.

This apology fails badly. United will not course-correct overnight, and what occurred here could change the face of air travel. It will take thoughtful engagement, real reparations and genuine contrition to restore consumers’ trust and respect in United Airlines.

Hinda Mitchell is the president of Inspire PR Group. A version of this article originally appeared on the agency’s blog.


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