United: Out of the frying pan, into the fire

United: Out of the frying pan, into the fire
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There was no way for United to avoid negative press this past week, aside from using a time machine to go back in time and choose another passenger — perhaps one frailer and less likely to fight back — to remove from the plane. That being said, it certainly did not need to get this bad. Since the video went viral of security officers dragging a limp and bleeding man from a United flight, the company’s stock has dropped and mocking United has become the next big thing, with memes popping up on popular sites at an alarming rate.

As a crisis communications specialist, I was watching this entire debacle unfold with disbelief and wonder that a company would handle this so poorly — especially a company being helmed by a CEO who only a month earlier had been named “Communicator of the Year” by PRWeek.

I am not going to evaluate the actual incident, as that is not my wheelhouse. I know that, legally speaking, an airline has the right to remove paying customers from flights if the flight is overbooked; it is a clause that is (unknowingly) agreed to by passengers when they purchase their ticket. Is that right? That’s not my area of expertise.

Instead, let’s discuss how CEO Oscar Munoz turned a PR dip into a full-on PR nightmare. A proper public relations response to a crisis requires the responder to understand people; what are people actually angry about? The answer here: the violence displayed in removing a passenger. But, rather than respond to this concern, Munoz brushed over it. He released a short statement in which he apologized for having to “re-accommodate” passengers, but not the violence used to do so.

This response failed on two levels. First, it did not address the issue people had. People were not up in arms that people had been bumped off a flight; they were irate that a man was removed with brutality. “Re-accommodate” sounds helpful — what happened was not helpful. Second, it was not an apology, which is what people wanted. People wanted compassion and an admission of wrongdoing; what they received was a denial of culpability written in fancy legalese.

The message released was not even aimed at the public, when it really should have been. Instead it was aimed at the lawyers that the man could potentially hire. And Munoz’s second comment on the matter was even worse; it was a company-wide email in which he called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.” This communique was wise from a business standpoint, but not a PR standpoint. On the business-side, it is important to let your employees know that you have their backs and will stand by them. But, this could have been accomplished without further alienating the public.

It was not until two days later that Munoz finally released a statement calling what happened “horrific” and apologizing. Too little, too late. Perhaps Munoz could have prevented some of the negative backlash if he had released this third statement two days earlier — but he didn’t. Timing matters. We live in an age when one idea can be sent across the world in a matter of hours. The video went viral and had millions of views just a short time after being uploaded. A quick response is key.

This points to an organizational problem within United. The company’s head of corporate communications doesn’t report to the CEO, adding in middlemen and precious time. The more individuals through whom one needs to go, the more time it takes. This cost United who knows how much time in issuing a response. Additionally, you want your PR expert to be delivering advice directly to the person who will be issuing response and going before the cameras. Anyone who has ever played the childhood game of telephone knows that, the more people a message goes through, the more distorted and watered down it becomes.

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