Avoiding fault in dragging passenger off plane is creating another United airline PR crisis
Once again, United is grounded by a tone-deaf non-apology.
Just weeks after the airline was criticized for banning two tweens from a flight for wearing leggings, United has a bigger public relations crisis on its hands: Viral video of a passenger being forcibly removed from his seat on an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville to make room for four United crewmembers.
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017
As images of the bloodied man being dragged through the plane circulated online, consumers called for boycotting the airline. Twitter unleashed a barrage of memes ridiculing United with mock slogans like, “we put the ‘hospital’ in hospitality.” Stocks fell 3.5% early Tuesday, and the U.S. Department of Transportation has opened an investigation into the Sunday incident.
The captain has turned on the no passenger sign #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos
— W.T. Martyn (@WTMartyn2) April 11, 2017
PR power players and airline industry experts agree that the backlash could have been mitigated if the company had just offered a better apology.
“Is the 60 seconds of satisfaction you receive from winning an argument worth the repercussions an angry person later on?” asked Alison Brod, CEO of Alison Brod Marketing and Communications, which provides crisis management.
But United CEO Oscar Munoz’s statements after the Sunday incident doubled-down on the airline’s right to eject passengers. He also blamed the victim for being “disruptive and belligerent.”
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
“Whether Mr. Munoz believed he was right or not … he needed to give comfort to what years ago would have been a plane full of people, but due to social media today, is now the world,” said Brod.
Advertising mogul Ed Mitzen, founder of Fingerpaint Marketing agency, agreed that United “really needs to fall on a sword here.”
Here are three things companies like United should do when they apologize.
- Accept responsibility ASAP. Go on all of the major networks, social media, YouTube and international platforms, and apologize in multiple languages, says Mitzen. Seth Kaplan, industry expert and editor of Airline Weekly, notes this worked for JetBlue in 2007 when CEO David Neeleman took the blame for 130,000 passengers getting stranded. “The CEO was just unequivocally apologetic. He was mortified, and came up with a passenger bill of rights,” Kaplan said. It worked. JetBlue ranks first in the American Customer Satisfaction Index Travel Report.
- Prove that you won’t let it happen again. Mitzen says United and other companies in a similar spot should announce that they are going to audit the way they approach these situations, and establish a new standard procedure. He would also fire everyone who was involved. “They need to send a signal that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated,” he said. “They should also announce that no United employee going forward is ever going to bump a paying customer.”
- Make it up to the victims directly. Companies like United should meet privately with the people impacted by their behavior and offer them compensation, says Mitzen. In United’s case, they should also refund the other passengers on the flight, who were likely traumatized by the experience.
UPDATE: Looks like United took this advice. Munoz offered a second apology on Tuesday afternoon taking ” full responsibility” and promising “we will work to make it right.”
“No one should ever be mistreated this way,” he added in the statement, vowing United will review its incentives and policies for how they handle oversold situations, as well as how they partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.
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