By Nikki Francis-Jones
For decades to come, events on United Airlines Flight 3411 on Sunday 9th April and the aftermath will go down in the annals as a ‘how not to’ manage a PR crisis in the digital age.
The now infamous footage showing the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked United aircraft for an employee, evolved into a veritable smorgasbord of PR nightmares, becoming a talking point the world over, with even The Donald, ever erudite, describing its handling as ‘horrible’.
This so soon after #leggingsgate – where a clumsy response from the same airline saw an incident about clothing escalate into an uproar.
‘United Airlines PR disaster’ gets you over three million hits on Google at last count (13 times more than ‘BP PR disaster’, incidentally) and entry, no doubt, into an unfortunate top 10, or even top 5, list of the ‘world’s worst’ for future communications students to dissect. Still now, as the dust settles, it’s hard to comprehend how the third largest carrier in the US, with profits of £1.8 billion last year, and a CEO lauded for his comms approach got it so wrong.
There’s always a video
The videos of Dr David Dao being dragged, bloodied and yelling, off the plane by law enforcement officials, took minutes to be circulated online.
The moment you have citizen journalists sharing such images – it becomes a public opinion and PR issue.
You can’t predict with total accuracy every single crisis or how it will unfold but having to remove a passenger from a plane is a reputational risk that could be predicted and therefore planned for.
This was an operational failure made worse by subsequent public relations mistakes.
Lawyers are not paid communicators
When it eventually came, CEO Oscar Munoz’s lacklustre and, quite frankly, weird apology for ‘having to re-accommodate these customers’, was indicative of lawyers urging ‘don’t admit ANYTHING’. And this from a man recently dubbed ‘Communicator of the Year’, an accolade since tempered by its grantors.
A weak statement, universally derided, provided wonderful fodder for the meme creators and fanned the flames of public fury. Something awful just happened to a fellow human being. ‘Where was the humanity?’ the world asked.
Lawyers, good at protecting their client’s interests in a court of law, are not always experienced in the court of public opinion.
Even though it was not a United Airlines employee doing the man-handling, it happened on a United Airlines flight and responsibility needed to be taken swiftly.
Align internal and external comms
Shortly after the strange non-apology, an internal communication was circulated to staff supportive of crew and policies, passing blame to the ‘disruptive’ passenger.
Mr Munoz, said to be popular with his staff, is credited with having pulled together a previously disgruntled workforce. Standing shoulder to shoulder with his employees may bolster his popularity internally, albeit raising questions elsewhere about his management choices. But what was the rationale, if there was one, in sending different communications to the company’s internal and external audiences and without thinking it would be leaked?
Ownership & authenticity
The full apology, when it came two days late(r), repeated on Good Morning America, set the right tone – unequivocal, there was humility, authenticity and ownership.
“I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” Munoz said, “I promise you we will do better.” There at last was the explanation, remorse and assurances of mitigation – damage limitation had begun but late in this fast-moving digital age when a response after thirty minutes is seen as slow.
Contrast this with the Chicago aviation department’s response which was to promptly condemn the actions of the security officers involved and place them on leave.
Learn from it
Almost two weeks on, other than the restraint by commentators in avoiding flying analogies in their copy, what’s also notable is that United’s share price, which fell 4% on 11th April, is still trading close to levels seen a month ago. Delta Air Lines may capitalize for now and a lawsuit is pending (probably to be settled generously), but Munoz, who described what happened as a ‘watershed’ and ‘humbling’ when releasing Q1 earnings on Monday, has not resigned, policies are being reviewed and full year profits are still expected to be in line with forecasts.
The jury’s out on the full scale of the reputational damage to United Airlines in pure financial terms up to this point, but it’s my bet that the reckoning will come. Attention spans in the digital age are short, but once the initial shock gives way to humour and the bad taste jokes start, fewer people will want to be associated with an airline whose judgement has been shown to be so flawed. There’s more to a reputation than a share price.
Nikki Francis-Jones is an associate director at Gong Communications
Photo credit: Twitter