United Airlines flies into PR storm

Nick Ringrow – Account Manager at Spreckley 

If you want a crash course on how NOT to do crisis communications, just search United Airlines and you will find a couple of recent stories showing the myriad of ways you can go from bad to worse very quickly. But let’s take this latest fiasco as an example. A passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight, despite being offered $800 to vacate his seat for a United employee that needed to get to another flight.

In the age of smartphones and social media, forcibly removing somebody that isn’t a threat to the safety of the people around them is always a bad idea. The incident was recorded on numerous passengers’ phones and posted to social media. The Twitterverse exploded in condemnation of United and the law enforcement officers involved. Memes and parodies have been popping up showing support for United’s competition while deriding the company itself.

After the instant reaction from social media warriors comes the more formal response from the airline themselves. CEO Oscar Munoz, incidentally PR Week’s Communicator of the Year (prior to United’s recent crises), went on record to offer an apology “for having to re-accommodate [the] customers”. Only a brief mention of “what happened” and “this passenger” are given, failing to address their comments directly to the aggrieved party. No acknowledgment that an altercation occurred, or the fact that force was used. No attempt to apologise for the actions of the law enforcement officers involved, no real attempt to apologise at all. Then to top it all off, Munoz issues an internal statement describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent”. In a time of dwindling employee loyalty, especially in large organisations like United, this was a very dangerous game to play.

From start to finish this was a poorly handled crisis. The use of force, while law enforcement’s legal right to do so, was entirely unnecessary and made a frustrating situation all the worse. This led to the phones coming out and recording the climax, a bloodied man being dragged off a plane. Next, social media condemnation and ridicule of United. After that, a shambolic statement from a man supposedly the communicator of the year, apologising for the inconvenience to all the passengers affected, even those three who accepted United’s $800 to vacate their seats.

In the digital age, any situation can take on a life of its own. There will always be those ready to condemn at the first opportunity. The trouble is when loyal customers and stakeholders join in. Having a well drafted response that looks at all the incident points and acknowledges them in full, in the roles played by all parties is essential in order to maintain a good reputation. And a sincere apology to those impacted by the events, in this case the delayed passengers and the individual at the centre of the furore.