Crisis communications gone wrong – It’s too late to say “I’m sorry”, United

April 12, 2017

Back in kindergarten, if you knocked someone over in the playground and they fell and got a bruise and you got caught doing it – guess what happened.

You got in big trouble. You fessed up. You apologized quickly to get it over with.

That person may or may not have deserved that shove for taking your spot on the bench. But you learned to never do it again (or at least with witnesses). And you learned to appease the many adults who told you to do the right thing.

Fast forward and intensify to the never-ending PR disaster that seems to be United Airlines.

First we have United Breaks Guitars, where the airline loses an epic PR war against a guy with a broken guitar from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Dave Carroll took on the big corporation and won, by creatively pointing out United’s complete and utter inability to apply any form of common sense to customer service when they broke his guitar. He took to YouTube with a series of homegrown music videos, the main one now achieving over 17 million (yes, you heard me) views. He continues to be a bane of their existence, and for good reason.

Then just last month, young girls on United flight passes were barred from boarding a plane because they were wearing leggings. Seriously, leggings. Half of the female population now considers leggings more of a closet staple than stirrup pants in the 80s (and that’s a good thing). The public erupted yet United chose to defiantly cite its policies and defend its rationale in the most tone-deaf way possible.

And now we have a man on a flight, who had taken the seat he had paid for and didn’t want to give it up because United overbooked and needed to transport crew. He was violently hauled off of that plane by goons, in a manner not fit for the security guard titles they hold, while fellow passengers recorded every awful moment to share with the world.

The communications strategy from United? Stand by our men (and women), indicate this re-accomodation was unfortunate and resolve to investigate the situation thoroughly.


What they did wrong

Some have said that United needs to have more compassion in its culture. I agree with that from a customer service standpoint, although perhaps being human could also be argued.

Their PR challenges are different though because they relate directly to policy and the refusal to acknowledge that change is required.

United doesn’t seem to recognize its audience or learn in any way from its mistakes – or if it does, way too late to have any impact.

It doesn’t commit to hold anyone accountable, and it doesn’t manage to achieve any level of trust that its efforts to change will actually produce a result.

It took three messages and the same amount of days for the CEO to finally come out and say this was wrong.

By that time, shares had taken a hit of nearly 4% and #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos was leading Twitter in the States, with avid tweeters suggesting slogans such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating”, “fly the friendly skies, leave with bloody eyes” and “go cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”

According to CNN, United was also the top trending topic Tuesday on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, attracting more than 100 million views – and Vietnam, the victim’s home, was up in arms asking for justice.

Those are two markets you don’t want to alienate.

But in that first, critical communication not once did CEO Oscar Munoz say this was a sad day for United. Not once did he say something went desperately wrong – from the cause to the horrible, violent result.

Not once did he say that there clearly was an issue with over-selling or crew stand-by seating and that United would be leading the way with fellow airlines to make a very awful wrong, right.

What did he say? That they stand by their employees and their policies – which ultimately is translated into “someone else botched it up.”

The golden hours of crisis

We’re thankfully long past the days of Communications & Public Relations fighting to have a place in the C-suite of corporations, defending the value of the role for the bottom line.

But crisis communications is an entirely different beast of burden.

The hours immediately after an event are the most critical. You have a short amount of time to assess a situation, come up with a plan and get out there with a response (unless you choose to hide, in which case, good luck).

In the world of 24/7 media, social and otherwise, you’re in the global court of public opinion, and it is a nasty place that can at best alienate some of your customer base – or at worst, cut your profits off at the knees.

United is learning the hard way. After 24 hours, the share value was down over $250M.  For context, it took a hit of around $180M during United Breaks Guitars.

In this case, the golden hours started counting down when that passenger was violently hauled off an aircraft and fellow flyers starting uploading the video. Although I do think there is an argument to be made that the issue started when they allowed all passengers to be checked in.

Now here comes the problem. Corporate lawyers, especially those specializing in liability (sorry guys), will eat every morsel of those golden hours if given the opportunity. The concerns will be about protecting the brand, wordsmithing to reduce legal damages and not assuming responsibility.

Unfortunately, in a case like this, the leader needs to assume responsibility for what happened and have the guts and common sense to make change where it’s required.

That’s not an easy conversation to have as a communicator – or an easy strategy to convince someone to follow. But it’s the only adult way to face your reality and stop the bleed.

You’re essentially putting a CEO or senior leader out to face the wolves and wrath in a case like this, but it is manageable if you know what you’re doing. That’s why it often makes a lot of sense to bring in a crisis specialist who can be an objective, unemotional third party setting that strategy and coaching through the tough days.

United needs more than a crisis strategy at this stage

There is one person who should still say “sorry” – and that is whoever advised this PR approach in the first place.

The problem is, it’s not the first time for United and unless its leadership changes significantly – in other words at the top, starting with the CEO – it won’t be the last.

This despite the fact that just last month, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by the magazine PRWeek (no, I don’t subscribe).

Late Tuesday, the CEO clued in to the fact that he needed to say something drastically different. But it was already too late.

United Airlines needs wholesale change from within that is eventually reflected in its communications, because it will never be achieved by a strategy or by hiring America’s best speechwriter.

Unfortunately for United, it’s way too late to say I’m sorry.

Is your organization prepared for a crisis – and who to call on in those critical hours? Do you want to have a conversation about that plan or talk about an upcoming issue facing your organization? Contact us at Flagship Solutions today.

Disclaimer: Although I certainly can take no responsibility for the unprecedented response to Dave Carroll’s social media success, I did assist with his media relations so understand the story well, and unabashedly know the song lyrics by heart…

Alyson Queen
Director, Communications

Alyson is Flagship’s Director of Communications and has been advising on media relations, public affairs and strategic communications for nearly fifteen years in both the public and private sector, including as a Director of Communications on Parliament Hill to senior ministers. She also takes pen in hand as a writer, contributing articles for community and industry publications.

Crisis communications gone wrong – It’s too late to say “I’m sorry”, United