Negative Coverage Creates PR Problem for United

As a communicator it’s been fascinating watching United’s response to its “re-accommodation” of a passenger from one of its flights over the weekend.  It has created a public relations headache that it could easily have avoided.

Holding Pattern

As soon as the issue happened, United ground crew should have alerted the company’s senior communications executives.  In the era of social media, where stories break and crises are played-out in real-time, every organization this should be part of the operations playbook.  From United’s response – or lack of it – on social media United either doesn’t have a process for dealing with issues like this, or it wasn’t followed.  In this case the incident happened in Chicago, where the company’s worldwide media relations team is based.  It’s a local call.

Once senior communications executives became aware of the problem a simple statement could have been issued. “We’re aware of an issue relating to flight UA 3411 and are investigating.” United’s first response to the problem was by CEO Oscar Munoz 18 hours after the incident.  18 hours!! A holding statement should have been issued 18 minutes after the incident.

PR Week Communicator of the Year

The holding statement acknowledges the issue and explains that the company is investigating.  It buys time for the airline to find out what really happened and to prepare a suitable response.  In this case, United CEO Oscar Munoz’ response was poor.  Disappointing, given he was recently awarded PR Week’s ‘Communicator of the Year’ award.

Munoz’s statement should have read, something like, ‘Something clearly went wrong on flight 3411.  We are investigating to better understand what happened. I have spoken with the passenger involved to offer him our full and unreserved apology. This is not the standard of service I expect from United employees. It is also not the standard of service that our customers should have to endure.  A full investigation is under way.”

Something Went Wrong

Because, let’s face it – something went wrong in relation to 3411.  Any time a passenger is dragged off of a flight against their will – having been allowed to board and holding a ticket for the flight – something went badly wrong.  The fact that in this case he didn’t volunteer to change flights is irrelevant.

A ‘PR’ Problem

The incident is being reported as creating a huge public relations problem for United.  I agree.  It is likely to have damaged relationships with many United customers as well as encouraging passengers that would have flown with the airline to choose a competitor.

Negative Publicity

The negative coverage, in print, online and on TV and radio is doing untold damage to United’s reputation.  It will take months if not years to rebuild the trust lost as a result of the incident.  It’ll also, likely, cost the airline hundred’s of thousands – if not millions – of dollars in lost revenue.  It could end up being a bigger deal than the infamous “United Breaks Guitars”, which the BBC estimated cost the airline $170,000 in lost revenue, let alone the damage it did to the companies reputation.

United was clearly not prepared to handle the situation.  It should have adopted simple protocols and processes and pre-prepared holding statements that it could issue immediately a problem like this happened.  Had it done so it could have taken control of the situation and avoided the damage being done to its reputation and brand.

Others can learn from United’s missteps.


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