Crisis Communications: Is it too little, too late for United Airlines?

Crisis Communications: Is it too little, too late for United Airlines?

Just a couple weeks after a public outcry following United’s refusal to let two children board a flight as they were wearing leggings, the world looked on in horror as a video went viral showing a 69 year old man being dragged bloodied and seemingly unconscious from an airplane – for no other reason than refusing to give up the seat he had reserved and paid for.

What unfolded in the following 72 hrs will no doubt go down in history as how NOT to handle a crisis situation. The reputational damage to United Airlines is already huge with many individuals and businesses threatening a boycott, Chinese media accusing racism and questions asked at the White House press conference. Whilst United’s share price was not initially hit on Monday by close of markets on Tuesday it had lost 4% equating to around $1.4 billion in market capitalisation. If you add to this the cost of long running legal proceedings and the accompanying negative media coverage the damage will run deep.

From a communications point of view the ill-thought-out response from United and its CEO, Oscar Munoz, is unfathomable. The initial statement from Munoz completely lacked any humanity, centred around United not the affected customer, was not a proper apology, didn’t accept responsibility and used a combination of corporate and legal language guaranteed to ostracise the average consumer.

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Talking about the incident as ‘upsetting’ to ‘all of us’ at United immediately focused the statement around the business rather than the individual. The phrases ‘re-accommodate’ and ‘reaching out’ were immediately seen as corporate euphemisms completely lacking in any compassion for the customers involved and the company has been widely derided on social media.

The statement was followed by a leaked email from the CEO to United staff in which he said “I emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend all of you for continuing to go ahead and beyond to ensure we fly right” and described the passenger as “belligerent” this compounded the crisis into an even worst scandal scenario.

By Wednesday morning, a new statement had been issued with much more conciliatory tone (maybe the lawyers had finally let the PR people into the room?) and the CEO did an exclusive interview with ABC News. However this could be viewed as a bit too little, too late, although there was an admission of guilt, an apology and commitment to never let something similar happen in the future there were a few slips into corporate language and phrasing that would certainly grate with a UK audience. Munoz refers to “my messaging” (classic PR jargon), United staff as “our family” and the incident as “a bad moment” and a “systems failure”. Perhaps most revealingly was the very long pause after the interviewer asked him whether the passenger was at fault before Munoz said “no”. If United truly want to resolve this situation they not only need to say they are sorry but be seen to really mean it.

If nothing else, this whole incident is a good prompt of some of the basic rules for handling a crisis situation:

  • Time is of the essence
  • Express empathy
  • If you have made a mistake – own up and take responsibility
  • Don’t submit to the urge to be defensive – blaming others gets you nowhere
  • Talk as if talking to your grandmother – in polite plain English

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