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What PR Pros Can Learn from United’s Blunders

The airline company boasts “friendly skies” but on the ground, not so much.

We’ve all seen the video, eye-rolled over CEO Oscar Munoz’s callous response, jaw-dropped over Munoz’s leaked email identifying the customer (David Dao, MMD) as “disruptive” and “belligerent” and witnessed United’s $1B financial fallout.

Long story short: United messed up. Big time.  

Less than a month after the airline found itself in the headlines for denying two girls from boarding their flight due their choice in attire, people are still buzzing about the company —and not for good reasons.

Crisis Comms 101

So what can we learn? If the scandal has taught us anything, it’s that United Airlines needs a lesson in crisis comms, and social media certainly has the power to escalate situations beyond our control. Case in point, just look at the backlash Pepsi saw after debuting a commercial depicting imagery from the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Using United as a case study in addressing public backlash, corporate comms teams could take a few notes:

  • Act quickly, but thoughtfully – The first mistake United made was issuing a long overdue statement to address the scandal. While the statement was meant to serve as an apology, the failure to apologize directly to the victim, nor recognize him by name, reflected the company’s intent to protect its own reputation versus its customers. When looking to resolve an already-mishandled situation, all perspectives should be considered. By apologizing for “having to re-accommodate” passengers instead of admitting what happened, the situation became dehumanized.
  • Don’t blame the victim – The first rule of customer service? “The customer is always right.” After Munoz issued his statement, a very one-sided email added fuel to the fire by essentially blaming the victim and his behavior for what resulted in his bloody nose. A smart move would have been to take a step back and recognize that ultimately, United was at fault for letting the situation get out of hand. While Munoz apologized for forcibly removing the victim from the flight, he neglected to acknowledge his initial response to the situation or choice of words in his internal note to United employees.
  • Own up to mistakes and learn from them  – While it’s hard to say what’s in store for the future of United Airlines, social media indicates that customers are fleeing. One thing that’s certain is the carrier won’t be able to bounce back from this quickly. And while they might be tempted to release statement after statement, the best thing United can do for now is stay silent until it releases its review on April 30. Since the offboarding scandal so closely follows the leggings controversy, United should look to its latest crisis as a learning experience — whether that entails re-evaluating its current customer policies or publicly acknowledging the faults of all involved.

What’s your take on the United scandal? Join the conversation @HighwirePR and let us know what you thought!