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The Best of the Worst: 2017’s PR Disasters – #2: United Airlines and the “Re-Accomodation” Debacle

As 2017’s terrible, no good, very bad headlines continue to unfurl, so too does my look back at some of year’s worst PR disasters and the lessons that can be gleaned from the mishandlings of others. And speaking of mishandling, our case today is one that started with, quite literally, that, by United Airlines.

The whole catastrophe began in early April, coincidentally right as competing airline Delta coming out of its own crisis following a snowballing series of bungled operations that left many passengers and at least one corpse stranded on tarmacs. In an incident that perhaps had Delta’s C-suite breathing a sigh of relief, a video shot with a mobile device on a still-boarding United flight revealed one unlucky, randomly-chosen ticket-holder getting violently dragged off of the aircraft by airport security. As the saying goes, if it bleeds it leads, and in little time, the clip was viewed millions of times all over the world.

That’s bad enough. But United managed to make it worse, giving a woefully inadequate response and earning their reputation its own dragging, this one through the mud.

This PR disaster was the result of a perfect storm, and not the same kind that knocked out Delta’s network. No, this was a corporate clusterf*, created through a combination of unclear policies, poor communication with customers and a painfully-bad, jargony response.

Compounding matters, it took the company a full day to come out with that response. Perhaps that delay would have eventually be forgotten, but not after what came next. An internal memo with a blame-the-victim tone was leaked. Unlike United responses, the impact to the brand was immediate. One analytics firm found that their social sentiment dropped 160% in just 48 hours.

Let’s remember that the root of the problem was simply too many passengers for the available number of seats. This happens all the time. And people don’t get beat up. United’s first mistake was having unclear and inflexible policies regarding displacing ticketed passengers. Ideally, standard procedures should have been known by crew and customers alike, and United should have adequately incentivized volunteers willing to trade their reserved seat for cash or other consideration. Which is what generally happens. And it happens before anyone steps onto the boarding ramp.

Having already boarded the plane, United was in a very bad spot. Four people on that plane were suddenly required to leave, like it or not. Now, planes are uncomfortable by nature. . Add in the more uncomfortable situation, and who is really surprised things turned sour.

Once things were sour, United failed again. The right thing to do would be to admit wrongdoing, apologize to the injured passenger as well as all of the other witnesses to the incident and deliver a clear plan on how you will prevent this from ever happening again. But that’s not what United did, and sour turned to rancid.

While the video when viral and was seen around the world by that evening, there was no statement at all until the next morning, and that statement was a completely-off-the-mark apology for the “overbook.” No mention of the passenger who, by now, millions of people had seen with a bloody face being forcibly removed from the aircraft. So they tried again, and screwed up again. Another public statement was issued, this one coming off as cold and corporate. Then, they issued an internal memo that was promptly leaked because of its he-was-asking-for-it tone. By this point, United looked entirely insincere, and just one day later, the company lost $800 million in market capitalization.

There’s so much to learn about crisis management here, as it perfectly illustrates what not to do. Firstly, a good crisis response should happen very quickly. That’s why it’s important for businesses to plan ahead for a myriad of potential risks. Throughout the crisis, messaging should be consistent no matter who the intended audience is. It should be delivered in a way that shows empathy and reflects acceptance of responsibility, and there should be a clear course for corrective action to ensure the same thing won’t happen again.

United clearly failed on all of these points, and if they’d been in any other industry, this may have been a business killer. But, with so small a competitive field and the commonality of airline PR disasters, United’s business came through with little long-term damage besides its dented reputation. By May, we were back to sneering at Delta, caught on camera kicking a family off a flight after a seating mix up.


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