By now you’ve no doubt seen the footage of authorities at O’Hare airport in Chicago forcibly removing a passenger who did not want to be bumped from an overbooked United Express flight. Any time there’s a viral event like this, PR pros are often just as interested in the corporate response as they are in the initial event itself. While the investigation into exactly what happened on that flight continues, and while the video and the #BoycottUnited hashtag trends online, we thought it would be worth taking a quick look at the initial response from United. In short, the response should have been bumped as well.
Several hours after the passenger went viral, United tweeted the below response from United CEO Oscar Munoz.
I am amazed at how many PR mistakes are contained in a four-sentence statement. Let’s start at the top. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” Upsetting for YOU?! No one, not one single person was waiting to hear how upset your employees are about this “event”. Who it’s upsetting to, is the man dragged off the plane and the passengers who saw it and who arrived at their destinations late because of it. Recognize that. Acknowledge that. Don’t tell me that your morning coffee was ruined by this.
Next sentence. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” Seriously? The issue here is not that you needed to find other arrangements for customers. The term “re-accommodate” to describe what is on that video sounds like a term invented by the government in Orwell’s 1984. “He wasn’t dragged off a plane, he was re-accommodated.” Sure. And airline legroom isn’t cramped, it’s “snack-sized”. What crisis communications expert would allow that kind of term to be used to describe what happened? It took about five seconds after the statement was released for people to make fun of that phrase online…
Let’s keep going. “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.” While it is understanding that you want to find out all of the details, this statement also gives the sense that you still may actually believe there’s a chance the actions that were taken on your behalf were justified. Unless the passenger was an immediate threat to the passengers or crew (and there is no indication that was the case), nothing that happened was acceptable, and Mr. Munoz should have said as much.
Finally, “We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” This sentence is not the time for “we”, Mr. Munoz. It’s time for “I”. I am reaching out to this passenger. I want to further address and resolve this situation. I will do what I can to make this right.
To be sure, this is a tough situation. When you have more than 80,000 employees as United does, there is always a chance that a handful may make poor decisions. And in this case, a bulk of the blame may end up on the shoulders of the law enforcement officers who actually dragged the man from the plane. But when something bad like this happens, your response must be sincere, contrite, and must acknowledge—even without all of the facts—that what happened is not good. The initial response from CEO Oscar Munoz missed the runway completely.