13 Apr 2017

Lessons learned from United Airline’s PR disaster

Friendly flier 

You can’t have missed the shocking footage of a passenger being physically removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight earlier this week.

David Dao, a 69-year-old doctor from Kentucky, was ‘randomly selected’ to give up his seat to make room for United crew members. When he refused, he was dragged off the plane by security – quite literally kicking and screaming. The entire incident was filmed by another passenger and is circulating the media. Later photographs of Dao show him disorientated and bleeding.

First and foremost, the incident has raised serious questions about the way United Airlines treat their paying customers. But if this incident itself wasn’t damning enough, the way United has handled the affair has been disaster after disaster. This is pretty laughable, considering CEO of United Airlines – Oscar Munoz – was named “Communicator of the year” by PR Week US earlier this month.

Let’s take a look at how United’s comms team could have handled this incident better…


Prevention is better than cure 

It goes without saying that this incident should – and could – have been avoided.

United’s strapline is ‘friendly skies’. Clearly, they want to be known for a positive and helpful customer experience. Although the bulk of the problem came down to the way flight staff handled the issue, the internal comms department could have helped prevent it. With a company as large as United, brands need to pay extra care to ensure staff are embodying the brand values.

Perhaps now United will invest more time in ensuring all staff are on board with the idea of ‘friendly skies’. The flight staff certainly could have responded a little more positively in the face of an unexpected dilemma.

Julia Underwood, a business professor at Azusa Pacific University, offers some great insight on the situation in an article for Los Angles Times:

“They’re so locked into their policies, there’s no room for empathy…What United and all companies need to do is to train and empower workers to deal with specific issues as they arise. Don’t just follow whatever is written in your policies.”

We couldn’t agree more!


Apologies should be quick and genuine

United Airlines could have minimised a lot of damage had their award-winning communicator of a CEO issued a heartfelt apology as soon as the incident came to light.

Unfortunately for United, Munoz’s first attempt at an apology was a ‘sorry not sorry’ type statement:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

Pro communications tip: apologies work better when you use the word ‘sorry’.

Only after United’s share price nosedive did Munoz finally issue a proper apology, in which he described the incident as “truly horrific”, and promised to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again.” Too little, too late!


Don’t expect internal documents to stay internal 

When an incident occurs that’s as serious as the United Airlines mishap, don’t expect an internal document not to be leaked. Especially not if it contains something the press would love to get their hands on.

In his open letter to United Airlines employees, Munoz made the mistake of attributing serious blame to the victim, calling him “disruptive and belligerent.”

We’re not sure where the leak came from, but of course, the media were all over this.


Social media mishaps 

Social media has played a big part in the current United Airlines controversy. Many people have taken to social media to voice their disgust at United’s treatment of David Dao. Several days after the incident, #United is still trending on Twitter.

In fact, social media is one area United have perhaps made the right decisions when it comes to dealing with the controversy. They’ve pinned the apology tweet to the top of their Twitter feed, and have stopped sharing any memes or other visual content. Given the circumstances, it just wouldn’t be appropriate.


News broke today that David Dao is filing legal papers regarding his treatment by United Airlines. We’ll be keeping a close eye on what happens next – and how United Airlines talk about it.

United Airlines