April 24 2017
The now famous United Airlines debacle of a bloodied passenger being dragged off a plane will resurface in news stories about United for years. Virtually everyone has seen the video of the crisis, from school children to captain of industries and because of it, they are paying a lot more attention to United.
What could United have done better and how much damage has been done to their brand?
United could not have stopped the worldwide viral video from reaching a mass audience, however, it was the company’s reaction that moved them into the storm filled skies of negative public opinion. The morning after the incident, CEO Oscar Munoz sent a memo to employees saying “I also emphatically stand behind all of you” and apologized for having to simply “re-accommodate” the passenger. Even a first semester communications student could see that it didn’t matter if the passenger really was belligerent; there was video of his unconscious and bloody body being dragged off the plane. It took another full day in the PR crisis-vortex for Munoz to acknowledge the public’s revulsion at the video. Unfortunately for United, both Munoz and their initial response froze them into the amber of public opinion as a company who doesn’t give a damn about their customers.
The incident highlights a danger for all brands in how they respond to fast-moving incidents. The dragging video defined United and drew such big audiences that journalists and the public are now sensitized to anything negative about United.
Seventy two hours after Dr. Dao was dragged down the aisle, a scorpion fell on a passenger and stung him. This story would normally be relegated to the oddities news, but a good journalist can sniff out an audience, so it got worldwide coverage from news organizations like the BBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, CNN, the Associated Press, Reuters and The Washington Post.
Fast forward a few more days and broadcasts, banners and blogs led with headlines like Bride and Groom Booted Off United Flight from KHOU in Houston. It doesn’t matter that the couple was trying to grab a free upgrade and lied about being taken off the plane by Air Marshals — journalists were now hyper-focused on United and quickly reported another example of the airline screwing their passengers. They reported and viewers massively consumed the news.
This sensitivity from journalists to companies that have mishandled the PR surrounding a crisis needs to be a part of crisis communications planning, especially for (what should be) short lived stories. It highlights three things that all CEOs should know before their staff walks into their office.