United Airlines


The horrific scenes captured on smart phones and shared across social media platforms gave a pretty candid view of the approach United Airlines take to customer service.

If anyone is looking for an example of a PR crisis then this has to be top of the tree.  It contained all the key ingredients: an awful experience, injured customers, a wide audience of viewers, video footage of the incident and a conflict with the company’s brand and values. All this plus a dreadful response from Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO and recent winner of the title ‘Communicator of the year’ in the US version of PR Week.

So, what could have been done better?  Firstly, the CEO should have quickly offered an unreserved apology for forcibly removing a passenger from his seat and publically dragging him down an overbooked aircraft aisle.

Timeliness and decisiveness are key to communications and Munoz missed his chance when the initial apology was for ‘having to re-accommodate … customers’.  Secondly, he made the mistake of assuming communications to employees won’t find their way into the mainstream media.  In a crisis, it’s best to assume that nothing is off the record and that any recorded or written communication will find its way to the media as they clamour to keep the story alive.

Thirdly, don’t publically criticise your customers however “disruptive and belligerent” they may be.  Let’s also not forget that the customer had bought his seat in good faith and only found himself in that situation because of United Airlines’ policy to overbook their flights.

So, does it really matter and will today’s news be tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers?  In my view, unfortunately not.  Munoz missed the boat as it was not until 72 hours later that he issued a proper apology, calling the episode “truly horrific.” Future customers may be relieved that he now finally wants us to know that “we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right” and that he will “promise I’ll do better.” (hopefully there won’t be a next time..?).

Three days after the incident and the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, with users suggesting slogans such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating”, while memes and jokes are also appearing on other social media sites meaning that the issue will reach wider audiences and stay for some time yet.

Financially, United Continental (UAL) shares, have lost more than UD$250m and are now around 4% lower than they were pre-incident.  The video, which circumnavigates language and cultural boundaries, has also attracted huge audiences in China, one of United’s key emerging markets (attracting more than 100m views, and rising).

Mr Munoz is currently looking to hold onto his position, however perhaps that’s now looking increasingly unlikely, largely due to a poor PR response at the outset of his company’s crisis.