The United Airlines Story: How a PR Disaster Could Have Been Avoided

United Airlines PR disaster

Unless you’ve been living under a rock on Mars you can’t have missed the epic PR disaster which ensued after footage was shared of a United Airlines passenger being forcefully removed from a flight by an aviation law enforcement officer due to an overbooked United Airlines flight. Most people reacted with shock when the disturbing images and video clips went viral and even the Chicago Department of Aviation placed the officer on leave, admitting that his actions were not condoned or acceptable. United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz on the other hand issued the following statement immediately after the event:

Aside from being impersonal and exceptionally formal, his use of the term “re-accommodate” diminishes the impact of the violent force used against a paying costumer who was randomly selected to leave the flight after no volunteers put themselves forward.  Whilst the officer was not an employee of the airline, the situation took place following a United Airlines request to remove the passenger and this CEO statement does not do enough to address the passenger who suffered on board their flight, choosing first to reference the United Airlines team as if they take priority over the customer.  I was asked to appear on The Victoria Derbyshire Show on BBC Two to discuss how United Airlines can survive this PR crisis. You can watch the full interview here (1hr54).

I was also given an opportunity to speak about this in greater depth on Eddie Nestor’s BBC Radio London show (from 0hrs33mins):

Finally, I was invited to discuss the situation on BBC Radio 5Live to discuss the PR fallout (from 2h19min):

The running theme throughout my discussions was that the CEO should have apologised directly to the passenger and held off from making any further comments until all the facts and information were established. Aside from the online memes and the backlash from consumers, media outlets and competitors alike this is a lesson in corporate sensibility and sensitivity. The consumer is king, not only when a business takes money but at every stage of the brand relationship process. The damage to the organisation’s reputation is huge in this case (although it is not the first time they have had negative press), with share values plummeting and social media reactions keeping this story alive. Passengers should be made to feel safe, secure and most of all respected and after this second statement from the United Airlines CEO it would seem that they are grasping this. This statement is more compassionate, more customer focused and has less corporate jargon. Is it too little too late? Only time will tell.


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