What the boss of crisis hit airline should have said

For an airline which boasts the slogan ‘fly the friendly skies’ the United Airlines response to video footage showing a bloodied passenger being forcibly removed from one of its planes was strangely lacking in empathy.

In fact United Airlines response to the incident has been a classic example of how to make a crisis media management situation worse.

The incident started with an overbooked plane preparing to leave Chicago for Louisville on Sunday evening and ended with a social media and mainstream media storm as footage captured by other passengers of the man being dragged off the aircraft went viral.

If you've not seen it yet, you can watch it below, but be aware it contains some distressing footage.

The incident undoubtedly created a giant public relations headache for the airline and it was not handled well as social media users have been quick to point out.


And the mistakes were made at the very top. Here’s the statement from Chief Executive Oscar Munoz which followed on from the initial United Airlines statement which said a customer had ‘refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily’.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize (SIC) 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 with him to address and resolve the situation.”


For such a short statement it certainly generates a lot of questions. Why would you put your company first in a crisis when it is surely all about the victim? Where was the apology to the man seen in the footage? Where is the contrition? Who on earth thought the made up phrase ‘re-accommodate’ was a good way to describe what happened on the plane? How hard is it to say sorry?

'Don't put your company first in statements made during a crisis - no-one cares about that' http://bit.ly/2nYQygr via @mediafirstltd

It seems strange that a man recently named by the US version of PR Week as its ‘Communicator of the Year’, would prepare or, more likely, put his name to such a clumsy, poorly constructed and ultimately damaging statement which served only to compound the crisis.

It was so poor we have ripped it up and started again. Here’s what Mr Munoz really should have said:


“We are truly sorry about the way one of our passengers was treated in the incident on our aeroplane on Sunday and I will be apologising personally to him. I have seen the footage and it is shocking and upsetting. We have launched an investigation and I am determined to understand exactly what happened, but clearly this did not meet the standard of customer service I would expect. I will take all the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again.”


The key is to start with the apology to show that you actually care about the man at the centre of this incident. It is also important to show you appreciate the significance of what has happened and describing the footage as 'shocking and upsetting' achieves that. The airline's customers will want to know what action is being taken and it is important this is also addressed in the statement without going in to too much detail at a relatively early stage. Often crisis statements would say 'we' but here I think 'I' gives a much more personal touch and shows the boss is taking a hands on approach to the incident. Finally, our version of the statement ends with a pretty bold sentence - normally we would advise against making remarks like this which could leave your organisation a hostage to fortune, but the footage in this incident is so shocking that something like this clearly cannot be allowed to happen again.

Along with the corporate jargon-filled, unapologetic statement, the other key mistake Mr Munoz made was in in his email to employees.

Of course, in a crisis media management situation it is crucial staff are kept informed about the incident and that there is visible leadership. But you have to expect that at some stage any internal announcements you make will find their way into the public domain.

'In a crisis you have to expect any internal comms you make will end up in the public domain' http://bit.ly/2nYQygr via @mediafirstltd

Clearly this is not something Mr Munoz considered as he used his email to describe the passenger as ‘disruptive and belligerent’ and praised staff for going ‘above and beyond’.

The result? A further round of damaging headlines as journalists got their hands on the email. Here are a couple of examples:

United CEO blames ‘belligerent’ customer for overbooked flight melee Huffington Post

United’s staff memo makes the internet even angrier – yes, that’s possible Mashable

And here is how social media reacted to it:


We should point out that following mounting pressure and falling share prices, another statement was issued yesterday (Tuesday) with a softer, more acceptable tone and an acceptance of responsibility. But it really shouldn't take multiple attempts to get it right. 

This latest crisis follows on quickly from another damaging incident where United Airlines would not allow two young girls on to a flight because they were wearing leggings. That incident was so poorly handled it quickly became known as #LeggingsGate.

It seems like every time United Airlines has opened its mouth recently it has inserted its foot, which makes you wonder just how much competition there was for that Communicator of the Year award.



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