United's PR Nightmare: The Biggest Fumble Yet
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An Early Contender For Fumble of the Year

We can already be sure that the case of the 69 year-old passenger being dragged (bloodied and screaming) off a United Airlines flight in Chicago this week will go down in history as one of the biggest PR Fumbles of all time.

The story dominated social and mainstream media alike, driven by the graphic smartphone video of the incident shot by fellow fliers, and amplified by late night comedy shows and more internet memes than you could cram into an overhead luggage bin.

Calls for boycotting the airline and shocks to the parent company’s share price continue, as the victim’s lawyers prepare what promises to be a landmark lawsuit.

How did United handle the crisis, and what mistakes did they make? The latter is a long list.

While the company moved quickly with a public statement from the CEO and an internal communications message to all employees (both are essential steps in any crisis), the messages were problematic, to say the least.

In his public statement, CEO Oscar Munoz called it an “upsetting event,” yet expressed regret only for having to “re-accommodate these customers.” No empathy for the bleeding customer who was dragged out of his paid-for seat, and no declaration that it was in any way horrifying or unacceptable. And using a weasel word like “re-accommodate” only served to set off the BS detectors of an already outraged public.

Then, in an all-staff communique (which he should have expected to be leaked to media), he contradicted his public reference to a detailed review to establish what happened by pronouncing the passenger as “disruptive” and “belligerent” – indicating that he had already passed judgement.

After unabated fury on social media, Munoz (who clearly has had better weeks, as he was previously named Communicator of the Year by PR Week magazine) finally issued the unequivocal and empathetic statement he should have released right out of the gate, calling it “truly horrific,” leaving him “deeply disturbed” and stating that “no one should ever be treated this way.” In his statement and then later on a national TV interview, Munoz accepted “full responsibility” and vowed to “make it right.”

Those are the right words, but they came far too late in the crisis. Munoz himself said “it’s never too late to do the right thing” – and he’s wrong. It was way too late in the court of public opinion. If it takes airport demonstrations and the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars of market capitalization to get you to do the right thing, it’s far too late, and it certainly won’t be viewed as sincere.

On a side note, I was astonished that, at no time, did United make any reference to the conduct of the Chicago Department of Aviation Security – the O’Hare cops who were actually the ones who decided use of force was the only way to resolve the standoff with the passenger, yet United took 100% of the blowback. I would have counseled at least a reference to “demanding a full account from the security service for its actions” as part of the next steps outlined by the airline.

In other United Airlines news, it seems the company is seeking a Brand Public Relations Manager. Please form a line to the right…

Veritas’ Director of Brand Reputation Bob Reid presents weekly Touchdowns & Fumbles Friday mornings on the Global TV Morning Show and the Jerry Agar Show on Newstalk 1010 in Toronto. Get in on the conversation on Twitter @VeritasComm.