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#PRFAIL: United Airline’s Disaster

Let’s take a quick snapshot of what happened on flight 3411 and the ensuing days: 1

  1. United informed the passengers that the flight was overbooked and were looking for one volunteer to leave for $400 and a hotel stay to take a flight the next day.
  2. United upped the compensation to $800 once all passengers were seated, to make room for crew members who needed to make a flight the following day. (By policy, they had much more they could have offered them.)
  3. No volunteers popped up, so United announced that 4 would be selected at random.
  4. One couple was selected and left, then Dr. Dao’s name was called and he refused.
  5. After some back and forth, security arrived and removed Dr. Dao from the plane. (This is where the viral video was generated.)
  6. Dao returned, bloodied, and United was forced to de-board the entire plane to clean the blood, re-board and send it on its way.

Of course, this is an awful situation for everyone involved, but again, mistakes are common in business and this was most definitely one. Whether the blame is put on United or the airport security isn’t what’s important. It’s the ensuing days that matter how the situation was handled going forward,  that interests me as a PR professional.

  1. Oscar Munoz, the CEO, put out a statement on April 10, apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers,” and saying nothing about the incident with Dr. Dao. 2
  2. A “second statement” was put out to all staff (come on dude, it’s 2017 and your company is in the dead-center of the media’s attention– you had to know that was going to get out) describing the passenger as disruptive and belligerent and also thanked them for their support.
  3. After a lot of heat from social media, Munoz released a third statement finally addressing the incident with Dr. Dao directly and seemingly taking responsibility. 3

Third time’s the charm, right? Not in business.

This situation was going to garner up some bad, bad, BAD publicity for United, but waiting a couple of days and multiple responses just ads a bucket of fuel to a roaring fire. Oscar, buddy, you’re scorched, aren’t you?

The aftermath of this incident has hurt United’s stock, public image (duh), and even their own employees, as Munoz has stated that their first priority is gaining the trust of their employees back and handling a “toxic environment.” 4

Oh, interesting tidbit here: This happened just weeks prior; another messaging nightmare occurred when United barred boarding of two teenagers for wearing leggings.5 This exploded on social media only for United to (more quickly) hop on the situation saying that these teenagers were part of their “pass travelers,” program in which there is a dress code. Social media, with celebrities (aka key opinion leaders), attacked United regardless of the policy. While this wasn’t as huge as the Dr. Dao incident it acted like tinder for the ensuing explosion.

We’ve seen internet memes, external and internal pressure, celebrities blasting them, boycotts and now even a federal investigation6 pending- there is an actual crisis here that United is in the middle of; something more than a week-long sore spot.

I’m not saying that things wouldn’t be uncomfortable for United if they had jumped on this faster or more efficiently; but there’s no denying that by A ) Responding correctly and through a professional communications or PR expert or B ) Building a rock-solid foundation of goodwill proactively beforehand that things would be going better for them than they are now.

The moral of the story is own up to it. Your company messed up and it does not matter whodunit’ – it happened on your company’s playground and you have to step up to the plate.

I have my ideas on exactly how this situation should be handled, but I don’t want to nerd out too much on you- folks (unless you dig media numbers, AP style writing, the principles behind proper defense of reputation, what NOT to do and the like, but if you’re into that kind of thing—give us a call).

I’ll be following this story closely and will stay tuned in the coming months for another swing at this story as things progress. I’m curious to see where the company is in a year.

Only time will tell

1 M. Glowwicki. “United Flight 3411: A timeline.” USATODAY.com. N.p., 11 April. 2017. Tues. 25th April 2017.

2 Staff “The Aftermath of United Flight 3411,” AirlineGeek.com, N.p. 12 April 2017. Tues. 25 April 2017

3 N. Al-Sibai  “United CEO Issues Third Statement, This Time Apologizing Directly to Passenger,” bustle.com. N.p. 11 April 2017, Tues 25 April 2017

4 J. Pletz “Munoz’s Biggest Challenge at United: Fixing a Toxic Culture.” chicagobusiness.com. N.p. 22 April 25, 2017. Tues 25 April 25, 2017

5 L. Stack “After Barring Girls for Leggings, United Airlines Defends Decision,” nytimes.com. N.p. 26 March 2017. Tues 25 April 25, 2017

6 L. Garfield “The White House Is Now Required To Address the United Airlines incident due to this petition by an 18-year old.” Businessinsider.com. N.p. 12 April 2017. Tues 25 April 25, 2017