What’s in the Air? (United Airlines Image Crisis)

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By now, we’ve probably all seen the video – a man forcibly being dragged from his seat and off a United Airlines flight. To say the video was disturbing would be an understatement and naturally, it immediately sparked a huge backlash against the airline company. The incident occurred less than a month after the airline found itself at the center of a Twitter backlash, after Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, tweeted that the two gate agents for the airline would not let two young girls board a flight, because they were wearing leggings.

While public opinion of the latter incident was a bit divisive, especially when it was explained that the two girls were pass customers and not paying customers, the double whammy of that incident and this latest one has made for a very negative and P.R. nightmare for the airline company. As this past week came to a close, the airline saw its stock fall by 4 percent. However, what made this recent incident particularly damaging for United Airlines is the very tone deaf response of its CEO Oscar Munoz.

Ironically, just a little over a month prior to this incident, Munoz was named Communicator of the Year by PR Week for, according to editors, being “An excellent leader who understands the value of PR”. Munoz’ response to the airline’s current PR crisis certainly makes one call the former statement into question.

I have written quite a bit about crisis communication on this blog, always reiterating the four key steps of crisis management that all organizations and businesses must adhere to in the face of any PR crisis. No matter the incident or issue, an organization should always remember to 1) do not hide, 2) be timely in response, 3) avoid being defensive and 4) explain why it won’t happen again. While United and Munoz did two of these things correctly – namely not hiding and being timely in their response, they failed at one of the most important rules, i.e. avoid being defensive. More importantly, they made one of the biggest follies of crisis management – dismissing or blaming the victim and not offering a sincere apology.

The first comment on the matter from the airline came in the form of a tweet, which stated, “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave”. Naturally, this outraged many, as it seemed to suggest that the individual being dragged off the plane was at fault.

Next, Munoz made his first statement on the matter, which was also posted on the airline’s official twitter page. In the statement, the CEO referred to the situation as upsetting and stated that the company was reaching out to the passenger. However, it’s Munoz’ apology for having to “re-accommodate these customers” that sparked outrage from some individuals. Many commented that the sentence read as dismissive of the gravity of the situation and that instead, the whole incident was merely an inconvenience to some customers.

The greatest backlash came when an internal letter sent by Munoz to United employees, went public. In the letter, Munoz is quoted as saying, “As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” Once again, to many, the statement read as blaming the victim and that the CEO was essentially saying that violently and forcibly dragging a paying customer off their plane was completely within their right to do so. Naturally, this did not sit well with many and the public outcry against the airline intensified.

Since then, Munoz has put out two more statements, each more conciliatory than the previous one and the airline has now vowed to change crew flight policy. However, the damage has been done and it may take a little while for the bleeding to stop.

This was a horrible situation in many ways but Munoz and the company’s initial response is another compelling study of why the first few hours of any crisis are the most important and why those initial public responses are so crucial. United was faced with a very damaging situation, particularly because there was visual evidence. The public reading about a man being forcibly removed from a plane is no way as damaging as the visual of a bespectacled, middle-aged man being dragged violently, as he’s screaming and bleeding, off a plane.

That visual alone should have alerted the airline company to the fact that this was a very delicate issue that they needed to navigate cautiously and with as much sensitivity and empathy as possible.  However, they didn’t do that. Rather, their first reaction was to go on the defensive and point the finger at the victim.

Not many individuals are going to initially side with a billion-dollar company over a vulnerable looking man seemingly being violently dragged. And United and Munoz should have been perceptive enough to realize this. The good news for United is that so far, tickets for the airline have not declined. That may change of course but as of right now, I’m sure any positive news is a great thing for the company. Still, the damage to the airline’s reputation has been done and that damage may cost them a lot more in the long run.

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