Passengers Aren’t The Priority For United Airlines

The airline's tone-deaf public relations response to its most recent controversy demonstrates disregard for customers.
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While it’s really all too common to find a corporate crisis in the headlines on any day I walk into my classroom to teach graduate students about the value of authentic communications, yesterday’s United Airlines debacle was unfolding in real time at the start of class. So my graduate students and I decided that whatever lecture I might have had planned could wait.

We projected Twitter onto the board and began to analyze comments in hopes of understanding what this dreadful incident could show us about how to handle a corporate crisis. And in the process we learned what a weak and disingenuous CEO statement can suggest about corporate values and culture.

First, of course, we watched the hideous video. Seeing a man beaten and dragged from his seat, while shocked passengers wailed and videotaped from all angles, left us speechless for a moment. But as we watched the incident a second and third time—as most viewers will, we arrived at the inevitable question: How bad does the whole system at United have to be for things to spin this badly out of control, this fast?

The answer, of course, was provided by United CEO Oscar Munoz himself in the form of a singularly bad public statement we found almost immediately on Twitter. Many of the organizational and cultural woes at United were right there for all to see, not just between the lines—but literally easily identified in every line of that statement.

So what can the Munoz statement tell us?

Munoz Statement Line 1: “This is an unsettling event to all of us here at United.”

Wow. In poker, I believe they call this a “tell.” The first line is an opportunity to convey authenticity, empathy, leadership, and integrity. But not here. This opener suggests that, at least as far as Munoz is concerned, this incident is first and foremost distressing to everyone at United? Really? This may come as a bit of a shock to the innocent passenger who was the victim of the beating, to his fellow passengers who were traumatized by the attack, to the entire traveling public riveted by the viral video, and anyone on the planet with access to Twitter. Here’s the reality: Virtually no one in the audience at whom this statement is directed cares about how unsettling this event is for everyone at United.

This opening line suggests an unwillingness to address victims of this incident—and might as well read, “We at United are primarily unsettled by bad publicity. Damn those cell phones with their video cameras.”

A reasonable reader’s takeaway: If an event like this doesn’t cause some soul-searching at United, nothing will. I’m going to try to avoid United at all costs.

Munoz Statement Line 2: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Incredibly, with this line, the United CEO doubles down on his stubborn insistence that this incident is primarily about someone other than the passenger who was beaten. Apologizing to some other group of passengers doesn’t even remotely achieve the objective of redirecting our attention from the bloody face of that poor man; it only increases our realization that the CEO intends to misdirect rather than resolve. Indeed it also makes us more eager to know more about the victim, the broken operational system, and corporate culture that led to the attack.

And neither does injecting a stilted, unhelpful verb like “re-accommodate,” redirect our attention from the storm troopers. If the first rule of a good communications strategy is authenticity, then the first sign of a truly bad one is having to dig deep into Merriam Webster for a verb that is supposed to sound vaguely official, but really suggests a desire for diversion and a lack of regard for the truth, not to mention an absence of empathy.

A reasonable reader’s takeaway: United is either not sorry or not in control of the situation, as evidenced by this ‘re-accommodation’ red herring.

Munoz Statement Line 3: Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.

After an incident like this, one of the only ways to rebuild trust is to insist on an independent and open inquiry to identify weaknesses in a system that broke down so completely. There is no real sense here that accountability or transparency are of great importance; rather the focus on “our own detailed review” suggests that United thinks it may be qualified to get to the bottom of the situation on its own. Clearly we’re past that point.

A reasonable reader’s takeaway: United will come up with some sort of story in coming days (and victim blaming is quite likely), but has no real intention of examining the culture that let this happen or overhauling the system that will practically ensure that it happens again.

Munoz Statement Line 4: We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

At last this neutral mention of the passenger and the “situation” comes too late to convey any empathy or outrage. Instead it just sounds like an obligatory nod to the elephant in the room—the passenger with the bloody face who hasn’t been mentioned at all so far by the CEO, even though he is now a global star on Twitter.

A reasonable reader’s takeaway: If they would have talked directly to the passenger, this never would have happened in the first place. Indeed, if this happened to that passenger, it could happen to me. Better to just avoid United.

Beyond the general inadequacy of this statement as a tool for managing the crisis, it also reveals profound weaknesses in policy, values and culture at United.

There was clearly no holding statement ready (or it wasn’t used) in anticipation of a crisis, despite the chaos and complaints that arise from overbooking hundreds of times every day at an airline. This begs the question: If they don’t have a contingency plan for utterly predictable customer service issues, do they have contingency plans for safety, security, or mechanical problems? One of the serious systemic issues this incident exposes and the scary questions it raises are about chaos, about lack of managerial engagement and sloppiness that United will have to now answer forever.

But beyond systemic failure, the apparent belief in the C-Suite at United that this CEO Statement was either in line with the corporate values they say they demand—integrity, competence, respect—or compatible with a sustainable corporate culture that insists on transparency, collaboration, accountability and humanity—suggests there are moral bankruptcies that can precede financial ones.

One thing is for sure: No one who read this statement came away with a sense that passengers are at the top of the United Airlines priority list. Or possibly even on that list at all.

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