You may remember the PR disaster that occurred following a preflight incident on a United Airlines jet. While it could have happened to any airline, it’s representative of incredibly poorly handled PR during a crisis. Let’s look at what happened on this flight and the ensuing days:

  1. United informed the flight’s passengers that the flight was overbooked and offered $400 to one volunteer for a hotel stay and a flight the next day. No one did.
  2. United boosted the compensation to $800 once all passengers were seated.
  3. When no passengers volunteered, United announced that four people would be randomly selected.
  4. One couple was selected and left. Then a man named Dr. Dao was called, but he refused to leave.
  5. Security arrived and removed Dr. Dao from the plane (and a terribly destructive viral video was recorded).
  6. When Dao returned bloodied, the flight had to de-board all passengers to clean up the blood and re-board, before sending the flight on its way. (And no one complained…I wonder why…) 

Of course, this was an awful situation for everyone involved. But again, mistakes are common in business and this was most definitely one of them. Whether the blame was on United Airlines or airport security isn’t what’s important. It’s the following days and how the situation was handled 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. (Oh, how proactive and courageous of you!)
  2. A second statement was put out to all staff describing the passenger as disruptive and belligerent and thanked them for their support. (Greaaaat, propagandize your own people.)
  3. After a lot of heat from social media, Munoz released a third statement finally addressing the incident with Dr. Dao directly and seemingly took responsibility. (Ever heard of “too little too late”, dude?)

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

This situation had already garnered BAD publicity for United but delayed mixed-message responses just added a bucket of fuel to a roaring fire. Oscar Munoz got scorched!

The aftermath of this incident hurt United’s stock, public image (duh), and their employees. Munoz stated their first priority was gaining their employees’ trust back and handling a “toxic environment.”

The moral of the story: own up to your mistakes. When your company messes up, it does not matter whodunit – it happened on your company’s watch, so you have to step up to the plate and take responsibility. Releasing belated and non-committal blanket apologies just won’t cut it. A critical lesson in crisis-management PR.

And just one more little reminder: Don’t beat up the customer. Otherwise, you’re in for your own whuppin’ and yours will be in public.

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