Posted by David Oates 2 years, 3 months ago


What a week for this airline! I almost believe that United read the well thought out PR strategy that Uber used to answer its recent sexual harassment claim by a former employee and decided to do the exact opposite.

Let’s summarize what's happened so far. The airline continues to suffer from an unending barrage of digital and traditional media torture. The memes blanketing my emails and Facebook news feeds show no signs of stopping. United will also break into their piggy bank to reimburse every passenger of that infamous Flight 3411 for their troubles; somewhere around $14,000. Longer term, the airline faces a whale of a lawsuit from the disposed passenger who failed to leave the aircraft on his own accord.

None of this may affect United’s bottom line, at least right away. That doesn’t mean, however, that they will get off scot-free. I suspect that a significant portion of the company’s patrons will now fly the airline not because they want to, but only because the industry’s years-long consolidation leaves them with few options on certain routes. Rest assured, though, once the market opens up again, United will shed a few profits and market cap in harsh and quick fashion.

What’s more, the airline needs only to look in a mirror to identify its culprit. Their complete inability to handle this crisis on just about every level was front, center and far reaching. A litany of failures existed but these two stood out most:

Sometimes, The Law Doesn’t Matter
Indeed United did possess the legal right to remove a passenger from an overbooked flight if no one volunteers. Like it or not, a ticketed passenger doesn’t necessarily own their seat until the aircraft pushes back from the gate.

A court of law may agree, but the Court of Public Opinion saw things differently. United’s insistence on enforcing their rights by summoning law enforcement failed to win them any supporters. More to the point, just because United could proclaim being “in the right,” doesn’t mean they were entitled to act accordingly. The airline learned that particular lesson the hard way.

Respond Quickly and Sincerely
Probably the worst part of all this is that United CEO, a recognized communicator of the year, took four attempts and three full business days to respond with any sense of care and concern. That delay cost them a few bucks, and likely much more in the coming months. Corporations take note. Express quick and sincere response soon after a Crisis PR situation develops.

Doing so doesn’t mean that an organization needs, or should, admit any wrongdoing. You almost certainly don’t have enough facts to do otherwise. Nevertheless, you need to show that you care, you’re concerned and you’re committed to finding out what happened, so it doesn’t occur again.

In addition, there's good evidence that Mr. Munoz's comments, while sincere, came with a lot of anxiety and hostility as depicted in this scientific analysis by EffectCheck. Words do matter, and United CEO along with his PR team should have chosen more carefully.

If you want to get an idea of what a good PR response looks like, see my video blog on Uber’s response to one that occurred in early 2017. You’ll notice it’s almost polar opposite to United.


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