As a PR flak I hear the jokes about my profession, and I’m not above tossing a few zingers myself. PR people don’t get much respect, and Sean Spicer certainly hasn’t helped. But there are times when people in my line of work truly earn their salaries; when a crisis of epic proportions hits that has the potential to upend a company or entire industry. Think the BP Horizon oil spill from the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 or the Volkswagen emissions fiasco from 2015.
The violent removal of a passenger sitting on board a United Airlines flight is another cataclysmic event for a public company. It will deeply wound all airline companies and is so disturbing that few (but there are a few) are able to defend it. The video, which has been flung around the world online, is gutwrenching, and leaves the viewer with searing anger at the violent injustice against an innocent man who could be any one of us. It’s personal. This is disaster with a capital D, and United, somehow, failed to recognize it.
I am traveling the Scottish highlands at the moment, so haven’t been tuned to the incessant cable news chatter, website tirades and newspaper inches that I’m sure have been dedicated to the story. But what has stood out from a distance is the massive PR fail from United, which took a seriously bad situation and turned it into a complete disaster. Good communications can rarely get a company ‘off the hook’, so to speak, but it can help make the company more relatable and lessen the intensity of the anger. United Airlines did the opposite, and its response will be in textbooks for years to come as a case study in what not to do.
So let’s break this down. Here is what United Airlines issued on April 10, shortly after the incident:
As the Financial Times noted, this looks like a canned response that could have been used in the event of a blizzard. In a crisis, the first thing to do is understand public sentiment; that is, get on the same emotional plane before crafting a response. In this case, people around the world were shocked, angry, and ready to march on United Airlines with pitchforks. United instead focused on the inconvenience of having to “re-accommodate customers”, which was so far off point I’m shocked it passed through United’s PR and executive teams. I don’t think the re-acommodation of passengers is what lit a fire under millions of people worldwide (but call me crazy). The first response in a crisis is the most important; it needs to accurately reflect the severity of the incident and try and diffuse it. By responding with empty platitudes, it made people feel like United was brushing it off, making them hate the airline even more.
Instead, United might have issued something like this:
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz then issued a letter to all staff. This is more difficult, because he is writing to address two distinct stakeholders: UA staff and angry customers. (He surely must have known the letter would leak). Unfortunately he failed on both counts:
There is so much wrong with this, I don’t know where to start.
The word “upset” doesn’t nearly come close to understanding and reflecting the vitriol and disgust people felt after watching the video. People get “upset” when the chicken is gone and only beef is left. Again, Munoz failed to grasp the seriousness of the issue.
Then this: “…with respect to why the customer defied the Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did…”. This makes it seem like it was the man’s fault. While there may be some truth to the fact he did defy officers, this isn’t the time or the place to mention it. It goes against the general mood and comes off as petulant and defensive. This is something for another time, not a letter to staff within hours of the incident and when the world is watching.
This: “Our employees followed established procedures…”. This is when Munoz is trying to serve two masters. He is correctly trying to show support for his staff, but it comes off as tone-deaf to the public. If “following established procedures” means an innocent man is knocked out in a violent confrontation and has blood dripping down his face, then perhaps the procedures need changing.
Finally: “…I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.” This sounds like something taken out of a promotional pamphlet, and again is completely tone-deaf. It’s obvious to everyone that United Airlines didn’t “fly right”, much less “ensure” it’s so. Munoz is caught again between the two stakeholders, but surely even his staff felt the vacuousness of these words. Munoz only needed to say that the situation is deeply disturbing, he apologizes that his staff needed to live through this, remind them they do a great job day to day, and let them know he’s going to get to the bottom of it so they never have to be put in that situation again. That’s it.
Oh, and by the way: at this point Munoz still hadn’t apologized to the guy who was knocked out and dragged off the flight — you know, his paying customer.
I’m not sure what happened after this letter, but Munoz must have gotten some new communications counsel. His next media statement, issued on April 11, comes much closer to hitting the mark:
A few things I liked about this:
- He gets the severity. “Truly horrific event”, “outrage, anger, disappointment”. He’s communicating that he gets it.
- He finally apologizes to the customer.
- He takes responsibility.
- “It is never too late to do the right thing.” This is key, because it shows humility and is a tacit admission that things (including communications) haven’t been done properly. We are all more willing to forgive somebody with a dash of humility and an earnest desire to improve.
- He is taking action: he details what will be covered in the review and when it will be concluded.
The situation is still evolving and there is plenty of time for further screw-ups, but it seems United might finally be on track in terms of communications. Whatever happens from here on out, the case of Flight 3411 will be studied by in-house communications teams around the world.
A few more points, unrelated to communications:
This case has shone a light on the issue of overbooking, which airlines have been doing for decades. Ironically, the problem on Flight 3411 was not overbooking, but the need for United Airlines’ own staff to travel. Overbooking may be a problem that deserves attention, but in my view this is much worse: no paying customer should be taken off a plane to make room for staff traveling for free, ever. It is the airline’s responsibility to get staff to where they need to be; asking paying customers to sacrifice for them is completely offside. Imagine a restaurant saying they can’t serve food because their waiters need to eat it, or Disneyland staff cutting in line because they need to experience Pirates of the Caribbean, too.
Denial of boarding
Several stories note that airlines can deny boarding (according to the terms and conditions of the ticket) if they choose. In fact, the rules give airlines a wide berth to deny boarding; what seems lost in this argument is David Dao, the Vietnamese-American doctor, wasn’t denied boarding. He was already sitting on the plane. I am not a lawyer, but to me this raises other questions: can an airline force a fully-paying passenger, already seated, off a flight without cause?
Fallout for other airlines
All airlines are stressing about overbooking and treatment of customers following this incident. It is a sensitive time in the industry, when even the slightest misstep could trigger an avalanche of complaints and anger. The public mood toward airlines is dark.
Service with airlines (particularly American ones; Asian carriers figured out proper customer service long ago) has been in serious decline for years, and the public has so far been able to grin and bear it. But after this, there’s no guarantee customers will continue to be so forgiving. United Airlines Flight 3411 has the potential to upend the entire relationship between airlines and their customers, and that would be a silver lining to an otherwise despicable incident.