United Airlines – Lessons from a PR disaster

It is only April and yet it seems like we have already witnessed several major brands flounder this year as our attention is repeatedly drawn from one high profile PR disaster to another. This month, United Airlines became a global punchline (pardon the pun) for its appalling response to the violent removal of a passenger from a flight.  

For those of you who have somehow missed this story, a 69-year old doctor – Dr. David Dao – was asked to leave an overbooked United Airlines flight to accommodate airline personnel. When he declined to do so – arguing he needed to see patients and couldn’t be delayed – the airline called law enforcement and he was forcibly removed from the plane. This was done in such a violent manner that Dao lost two teeth, sustained a concussion and a broken nose, was hospitalized and may need surgery.

The incident alone is shocking enough – and no amount of PR could be expected to combat the disturbing video footage of a bloodied, elderly man being thrown off a plane he had purchased a seat to be on. But the sheer ineptitude of United’s multi-stage PR response took a grave issue and transformed it into an existential crisis, with long-term ramifications for the company and for the airline industry as a whole.

More than once in the past week I have been asked – both by media professionals and by incredulous members of the public at large – for my take as a PR professional on the company’s handling of the crisis.

For starters, it is worth recapping the timeline of United’s communications to pinpoint the failures.

In its initial response, United Airlines apologized for the “overbook situation,” making no reference to Dr. Dao, his injuries or the video of his removal. The reaction on social media was swift and brutal, both condemning and mocking the company for deciding to focus its apology on overbooking rather than the injured party.

As a first response, this statement was almost comically inept, completely missing the point and adding fuel to the fire.

In an effort to stem the rising tide of anger, the CEO of United Airlines – Oscar Munoz – then issued another statement acknowledging that the incident was “upsetting,” again apologizing for having to “re-accommodate” passengers, and saying the company was taking action to determine the facts of the matter.

While this statement was an improvement on the first, it again neglected to reference Dr. Dao’s treatment or directly apologize to him. And yet as inadequate as this response was, it may have helped to calm public anger – if the company had not done what it did next.

That same day, an internal letter from the CEO to United employees was leaked. In it, Mr. Munoz described Dr. Dao as “disruptive and belligerent,” and clearly laid most of the blame on him for failing to disembark when asked. While the CEO did again acknowledge that the circumstances were upsetting, the letter was widely derided as utterly tone-deaf and it clearly undermined the authenticity of the previous external statement.

At this point, the public and the media – and social media in particular – were incensed, and United had a full-blown crisis on its hands. Potential customers threatened to boycott the airline, lawmakers called for an investigation, and even President Trump weighed in. And in the most decisive response of all, shares of United fell by 6.3% in pre-market trading, reducing the company's value by a whopping $1.4 billion.

This financial blow seemed to provide the company the impetus it needed to readjust its strategy. United issued yet another statement taking full responsibility for the incident, issued an apology to Dr. Dao, and offered a commitment to review the practices which led to the incident.

The following day, in an effort to humanize the company’s efforts, a subdued Mr. Munoz appeared on ABC’s Good Morning America expressing “shame” for the incident.

By the end of the week, United had completely reversed course from its initial position, publicly committing to a policy of not asking law enforcement to remove passengers from flights unless it is a matter of safety and security, and pledging to communicate the results of an internal review into the airline’s practices regarding oversold flights by the end of the month.

This response was exactly what the company should have issued in the immediate aftermath of the incident. And while there is little chance it could have prevented the video from going viral, the company could have potentially stemmed the volume of bad press, the effects of which may take years to reverse. It is worth bearing in mind that United had only just begun to rehabilitate its image after a difficult merger with Continental in 2010, a move which posed long-term difficulties for the company, including numerous operational challenges such as increasing numbers of delayed flights.

From a PR perspective, we can only speculate about why United chose such a poor communications strategy.

While it is reasonable and prudent to factor in legal opinion when determining communications strategy in a crisis, to do so in a way that compromises the message is ultimately a mistake. Shifting the blame to the passenger to avoid any liability is a risky strategy, and one that rarely sits well in the court of public opinion. A video of a bloodied and battered elderly man is an impactful image that will override any mitigating factors.

As with Pepsi’s recent woes that we talked about here, the United incident again demonstrates that companies must learn to step outside their internal bubble and assess communications through an objective lens, one that is grounded in reality. Only then can companies truly be prepared to navigate a crisis and emerge with their brand intact.