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United: How not to manage a PR crisis

Another week, another brand forced to refer to the PR Crisis Communications Playbook. In fact, I would think that United Airlines' copy of this publication is looking rather dog-eared by now, given the recent debacle surrounding appropriate clothing for passengers.

A much more serious PR crisis arose, though, when footage and witness accounts of an ugly incident involving a passenger being forcibly removed from an airplane for refusing to give up his seat on a flight that had been overbooked.

Let us remember that this is a company that has won plaudits for its PR in the past. We should also remember, though, that it also has form for this kind of incident.

Rather than focus on the rights and wrongs of what happened on the plane itself, or whether the policy of overbooking flights needs to be cracked down on, I want to focus on the mistakes made in United's communications after the event.

As many have already pointed out, CEO Oscar Munoz's initial statement on the incident was badly-worded, grossly unsympathetic and utterly out of step with the enormity of what had happened.

While United is a company that should be able to very quickly engage full crisis comms mode, it seems that no one within the PR team - from the CEO down - could see how this situation looked to outsiders. It is as if they simply wanted to protect their own - there was no explicit acknowledgement that there had been any wrongdoing on the part of any United worker, or expression of sympathy towards a man who was clearly injured badly while under United's care.

Even worse, it talks of how the event was "upsetting" to United, as if it were the company and not the injured man that had been the victim. The only apology within the statement regards the attempts to "re-accommodate" four passengers who held perfectly valid tickets but were asked to give up their seats due to United's own bad planning.

Sounds like it couldn't get much worse, right? Well, have I got a humdinger of a surprise for you. Munoz then emailed his staff, according to Associated Press, and blamed the injured man for being "disruptive and belligerent". Of course, the email - designed for internal consumption - was leaked to the press.

So while the United PR team endure what will probably be their worst week at work ever, here's a bit of advice on how difficult situations like this particular PR crisis can be managed.

Firstly, there needs to be an acknowledgement that there has been wrongdoing. Even if, as Munoz claims, established procedures were followed, there is clearly something wrong with those procedures if you allow passengers to board a plane only to then tell them they cannot have their seat any more. Why couldn't they have been told at the gate? Even more pertinently, someone was clearly injured and there has to be an expression of sympathy towards them. If "established procedures" lead to someone being injured in that way, the procedures are not fit for purpose.

If an incident requires investigating, then the process needs to be entirely transparent. Of course your legal team will be telling you not to admit fault, but if it does turn out that one of your staff did do something wrong, you need to be clear about what happened and what action you are going to take. What is not helpful is to send an email accusing someone who has suffered injury through the actions of your staff of being "disruptive and belligerent". Regardless or not of whether the man can be considered a victim in a legal sense, to the rest of the general public this man is very much the injured party. Victim-blaming will only have a damaging effect. Even if this case goes to court and United are found to have done nothing wrong, the brand damage will not be repaired. Furthermore, even if the email was not meant to be seen by anyone outside of the company, these things will be leaked whether directly forwarded or through screenshots. You would have to be incredibly naive to think otherwise.

The airline needs to be seen to be acting with complete integrity by taking responsibility for its employees and procedures. It also needs to be seen to value its customers. This is why it needs to express heartfelt and genuine sympathy for the passenger in question and also the passengers who witnessed the incident. It isn't simply enough to say that you will investigate what happened - you have to say that something will change. This is the only thing that will rescue your reputation after an incident of this magnitude. And as what happened was so severe, the medicine must be severe too. The CEO has to accept that, whether a failing of procedure, training or hiring, this happened on his watch. Simply put: this is a resigning matter.


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