Lessons to Learn from United Airlines’ Crisis

By: Zack Jones, Account Executive for Phospholutions

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Image Credit: ABC Local

We all watched with dismay as security officers forcefully dragged a man off a United Airlines flight earlier this week. As information became available throughout the day, it became very clear that what happened was extremely wrong and a terrible display of professionalism, organization and public relations.

The incident occurred on United Airlines flight 3411, which was waiting to takeoff at Chicago O’Hare Airport for Louisville, Kentucky. Passengers were allowed to board the flight before being told that four individuals would need to volunteer their seats to allow four United employees to travel. When no one volunteered, the manager told the passengers that they would randomly select four passengers and ask them to leave. The man, David Dao, a doctor who had patients to see the next morning refused to leave the flight. Security was called and Mr. Dao was forcefully removed from the plane in the infamous video that instantly went viral on social media.

While the incident as a whole is horrible, there are lessons public relations practitioners can learn:

1. Never Blame the Customer

When United released its statement, it seemed to place the blame on the passenger for the series of events. In a follow-up email sent to employees that was leaked on social media, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO expressed regret for the incident, but still applauded staff for what he described as employees who “followed established procedure.” In situations like this, it is best to be introspective and analyze ways you as a company could have addressed the incident differently rather than placing blame, or having the appearance of deflection from the issue.

2. Don’t be Afraid to Apologize

The best course of action for United yesterday would have been to profusely apologize for the situation. Then, it should have taken active, public steps to express that apology to Mr. Dao and other customers who witnessed the event take place on the flight. An apology with a free flight or refund for the flight would have been sufficient for most. If you wanted to do more, you could launch an official investigation and create a task force to examine the company’s so called “established procedure,” to ensure they are in the best interest of the customer. All communications, both internal and external would bear the same messaging to avoid the appearance of being two-faced. There’s nothing wrong with an apology, and an apology can end a public relations crisis faster than you think.

3. Lead by Example

While this incident has been a crisis for United Airlines with it losing customers, a bad image on social media and plunging stocks, there is still time for the company to turn things around. The incident launched a public conversation on the airline industry’s tactic of overbooking flight in effort to “compensate” for no-shows. Many customers voiced their disapproval of this tactic and called for government regulation of the industry. Without regulation, this was and still is the perfect opportunity for United Airlines to review that policy and possibly eliminate it in an effort to not only make up for the incident, but to make active steps to listen to the customers and acknowledge their concerns. The narrative of the story would shift and United could repair its image within no time.

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