United Airlines Plane Flying

When video footage surfaced late Sunday evening of a non-threatening United Airlines passenger being violently ripped out of his seat against his will in order to make room for a crew member to return home, United CEO Oscar Munoz and his team of PR experts should have been carefully planning every word of their apology. Instead, they thought it would be a good idea to issue a four-sentence statement on Monday apologizing for having to “re-accommodate” passengers while justifying their actions by claiming that the passenger, Dr. David Dao, was “disruptive and belligerent”. That was not an apology that United customers and the sympathetic public wanted to hear. This incident has dominated the headlines ever since, and has even helped the recent Pepsi ad controversy disappear from the headlines.

Mr. Munoz’s second attempt at an apology also failed to ease United’s PR woes because it apologized only to the employees of the airline in an internal letter while also commending them for their actions. It completely failed to apologize to Dr. Dao directly.

As the price of United Airlines shares dropped and public outrage continued to grow, Mr. Munoz decided to release a third and final apology that included a direct apology to Dr. Dao saying:

“Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No-one should ever be mistreated this way.”

Although it is widely understood that in this post-911 era when an airline crew member or airport security tell you to jump, you should ask “How high?” and complain about it later, that does not release airline and airport personnel from being held accountable for their actions.

In today’s day and age of social media and video-equipped smartphones, from a PR stand-point alone, it is of the utmost importance that employees of any company treat their customers with respect and dignity. Having said that, if and when a PR catastrophe occurs, CEO’s and public relations experts need to be in tune with the way their customers and the public feels when addressing issues such as this.

Throughout my career, I have seen many companies address potential nightmarish PR situations with sincerity, charisma, and class in order to avert disaster, while other companies have failed miserably. In some cases, failure to adequately address a negative PR situation resulted in the collapse of global institutions.

Here are the 5 PR lessons I’ve learned throughout my career that would have helped the United Airlines CEO better handle this situation:

1. Take Responsibility

We saw what harm a half hearted apology can do based on United CEO’s first and second attempts at addressing the issue. Downplaying and ignoring the violent and offensive way the incident was handled only accentuated media and public backlash. Had his initial apology addressed the mistreatment of Dr. Dao and demonstrated accountability on the part of the company instead of placing blame on the victim, the public anger would have been lessened.

Taking responsibility and apologizing for the WHOLE problem demonstrates that a company is being open and honest with the public, which helps regain trust and favor from the public and media.

2. Fix The Problem!

Admitting that a problem exists within an organization is just step one. Companies like United must do everything in their power to minimize the possibility of similar situations occurring in the future. They must be committed to finding and implementing potential solutions. Organizations may also wish to investigate and tackle other potential dilemmas that may arise in the future. This shows the company’s commitment to pursuing the interests of its customers and shareholders.

3. Keep Your Promise

Often times companies make unrealistic promises to their customers, or give up on following through on their promises altogether. In the case of United Airlines, promising that altercations between passengers and security will not occur again is paying lip service to their customers. The complex socio dynamics of traveling passengers can give rise to episodes similar in nature to this one. It’s up to United to ensure that they take all the necessary steps and revise their processes and policies to ensure that passengers are treated with respect and dignity, reserving physical force only to situations that pose potential safety risks to others.

By following through on commitments made to customers, companies prove that they truly care and are to be trusted again.

4. Effective Communication

After owning up to a mistake, an organization should continue to communicate openly with the public, keeping them informed of the measures being taken to resolve the situation and to address the root cause of the problem.

The messages must be genuine and not come off as self-serving or insincere in order to win back the public’s trust and respect. This means that organizations need to get the word out through external and non-biased trusted channels and not only through company representatives. Social media influencers (influencer marketing) can be a tremendous asset because it allows content creators who have established large followings of people who trust their opinions, share authentic messaging showcasing the company in an organic and positive way.

5. When All Else Fails… Fight

Fighting only applies when the allegations towards a company are untrue, misleading, or unwarranted slander, which is clearly NOT the case in the United Airlines scandal.

This commonly happens to politicians, celebrities, and less frequently to companies. Procter & Gamble went through this when they were accused of supporting a satanic cult in 1995. After a 12-year legal battle, P&G proved the accusation was false and were awarded $19.25 Million in damages.

The Bottom Line

By practicing transparency and implementing lawful and ethical business practices, a company runs a much lower risk of finding themselves in a PR pickle. The more information made available to the public about how a company operates, the less likely the public or media will go fishing for a scandal.

Given that organizations cannot always please everyone, if a PR disaster does occur, the sooner a company responds with a sincere and thoughtful message, usually in the form of an apology, the easier it will be to navigate through the PR storm and regain consumer confidence.

I’d love to hear your views on the United Airlines situation on how you feel they should be handling it. Please share your thoughts.