When the video leaked of airline security officers forcibly dragging a passenger off an overbooked plane against his will, it was clear that United Airlines’ crisis communications plan should have kicked into high gear. With one of the best crisis communications teams and a business-savvy CEO like Oscar Munoz—who also happened to be named PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year in 2017—you would have expected the airline to handle the debacle of Flight 3411 with ease. As one of the top international airlines, United has survived numerous PR blunders in the past, including the most recent #LeggingsGate.
Unfortunately, for this latest disaster, that was not the case.
PR practitioners would argue that Munoz should have addressed the crisis head on, owning what happened on his airline and publicly apologizing to both the victim, Dr. David Dao, and the fellow Flight 3411 passengers. However, United stumbled. Well, fell flat on its face, really.
Mistake #1: United released a mediocre apology on social media where Munoz apologized for having to “re-accommodate” customers. The lack of empathy to the flight’s passengers made the CEO appear tone deaf during a looming crisis and generated thousands of negative comments across Facebook and Twitter. In fact, Facebook alone brought in more than 140,000 comments.
Mistake #2: Rather than notifying employees that an investigation was underway, Munoz issued a rather defensive employee letter calling Dao “disruptive and belligerent” and praised the officers for following procedure. No brand wants to admit guilt or wrongdoings, but at times, it’s necessary in order to survive a crisis. It’s also vital to remember that even internal communications can go public (or worse, viral).
Mistake #3: Munoz made two additional statements, each one seemingly less genuine than the last due to the “too little, too late” notion. The second social media apology that called the event “truly horrific” brought in some favorable likes, but still opened the discussion for negative reactions. The third apology, made directly by the CEO in an exclusive ABC News interview, was a step in the right direction in terms of humanizing the brand and accepting responsibility, but made it clear that the brand was really struggling.
Despite the fallout from these missteps, there are some key learnings from what United did right. Yes, hang with me, here.
- United responded immediately after the incident hit social media and while the communication verbiage wasn’t successful, it proves that social media almost always comes first. The videos were released at 7:30 p.m. and the airline responded to Twitter complaints as early as 7:37 p.m. with a formal statement going viral later that evening. Prioritizing social media and addressing customer concerns in real time are both practices that all brands should follow.
- Following the incident, United pulled back on online digital advertising in an attempt to “go dark.” Although disappearing isn’t a long-term strategy, it is a good way to avoid further attention to a brand during a sensitive time and allows the brand the time it needs to rethink its campaign messaging.
- Despite Tuesday being United’s top day for sending email blasts, its airline pulled back on scheduled messages following the incident. Reeling in regular communication efforts was a good move as United will undoubtedly have to rebuild its reputation with customers before pushing out marketing promotions.
In the upcoming weeks, it will be interesting to see how Munoz will try to revive the airline’s brand, as well as its finances. After the event, United’s stock has dropped as much as $1.4B, there are rumors of a looming lawsuit from Dao, and the video has now exploded across Chinese social media platforms fueling rumblings of a potential Chinese boycott of international travel via United. For those of us in the marketing and PR world, this PR disaster will no doubt give us a case study for better crisis communication planning.
To learn how you can protect your brand’s reputation, contact Martino Flynn today.