And Then... A Scorpion: United Airlines And How (Not) To Handle A Crisis

Some tips for a CEO when your company is in crisis.
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By now most Americans know what happened to Dr. Dao on United Airlines. At this point, a good portion of the planet probably does. But every day the story gets a little worse. Seeing the video of the United passenger being dragged of the plane was bad enough, but United made it worse when the external response differed from its memo to employees.

Externally, United posted a standby statement attributed to its CEO, Oscar Munoz stating that, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

Internally, the message was quite different. Munoz blamed the victim, stating that the as yet unnamed Dr. Dao was “disruptive” and that as CEO he stood behind the actions of United employees. Naturally, the internal memo went external in a nanosecond.

Two days later, I opened a work-related travel and expense application to a bold message in red type that said “United, American, and Delta airlines have implemented Non-Refundable, No-Cancel, No Seating, No Upgrade type fares. It is extremely important that you read the fare carefully if you do not wish to purchase these types of fares.” Really? I can still see the video of Dr. Dao’s limp body being dragged through the cramped United airplane aisle. Not only do I feel solidarity with Dr. Dao but I begin to realize that I am actually afraid to fly United after what I have seen. And now United is coming at me from a different angle, reinforcing their unrelenting dedication to beating up passengers, both literally and figuratively. Talk about brand consistency. Yikes.

A few days later, we found out that Dr. Dao suffered a concussion, lost his two front teeth, and got his nose broken during the fiasco that United described as an attempt to “re-accommodate” a passenger. And on that same day, on a flight to Calgary, in business class, a scorpion dropped out of the overhead compartment onto a passenger’s head and stung him…on United. OMG!

So, in case anyone was wondering, it’s official. This is a crisis! Some tips for the CEO on how to handle:

Start with your own humanity

Remember that you are human and so is your customer. Sit quietly and start there. Ask yourself what that implies about how you move forward. Do not start by consulting the General Counsel or a crisis specialist PR firm. Start by consulting yourself. Once you have grounded yourself in your own humanity you are ready to take the next step. If you do this, you will avoid having to think about the next tip.

Do not blame the victim

I am going to assume that you had not seen the video when you called Dr. Dao “disruptive.” Never blame the victim. You are in the service business. In the service business, the customer is always right – remember? The airline business is an empathy and trust business. Who can trust someone who is willing to blame a passenger for wanting to get to their destination unmolested while imbibing water and a few peanuts, all the while foregoing personal space? In this case, not only do you appear to be lacking in empathy and trustworthiness, you appear irrational in the context of the video of Dr. Dao being dragged off the plane.

Winning a legal argument does not win hearts and minds

Know going into any crisis that in today’s social media world you can win the legal battle and still lose the war for the hearts and minds of your customers. No customers, no revenue. Communications is king/queen.

Trying to put lipstick on a pig is never a good way to go

As an animal lover, I think pigs are cute and smart. But as the saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig but s/he will still be a pig. People like to talk about “spin” but “spin” does not exist, especially in the social-media-cellphone-camera world we live in today. No one can “spin” his/her way out of a PR crisis. In fact, most of the time a PR crisis is not a PR crisis. Most of the time, a PR crisis is a monumental failure in execution, judgement or ethics, an underlying business or personal lapse, having nothing to do with PR. That failure is then often compounded by a tone-deaf response. So if your organization is not nimble enough to avoid creating the problem in the first place, you have to fix the problem. There is no spin option. You must establish your empathy and allay fears, you must change systems, processes and people. ASAP.

Speak in plain English internally and externally

The public is going to figure it out what you mean anyway so say it in plain English. “Re-accommodating” just does not cut it. And for internal purposes, if you cannot face a problem by calling it what it is, you cannot handle it effectively.

No daylight between internal and external communications

In this case, and in most cases, internal communications and external communications messages must be the same, especially in tone. Internal communications become external in seconds. Literally. Consistency between the two shows that you know what you mean, and you mean what you say, everywhere, all of the time.

Strive for consistency – and give your employees room to maneuver

When your tagline is “Fly the friendly skies” you and all employees should be, well, friendly. Everywhere, all the time, no matter their role or position in the pecking order.

Make sure you have the right people. Establish a principles-based, not a rules-based environment. Then trust your people to make the right decisions without a rulebook. Give them leeway to maneuver. If the ground crew had embraced the notion of being friendly and had been empowered to offer passengers, say, $15,000 and a trip to any destination where United flies to “re-accommodate” voluntarily before this incident occurred, they probably would have been fired. I bet that deal looks like a bargain now.

Linda Dunbar is a public affairs, PR and corporate communications executive with deep expertise leading a full spectrum of communications disciplines. Her multi-industry experience includes roles at Sterling Bancorp, Dow Jones, Ford Motor Company, the American Institute of CPAs, Philip Morris International, and JP Morgan. She can be contacted at