The past several days have been a public relations nightmare for United Airlines and it does not appear that things will be improving for the embattled airline and its CEO, Oscar Munoz in the near future. The United saga began when Dr. David Dao was violently dragged off a Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY flight due to the flight being overbooked and room being needed for 4 flight crew. The entire incident was filmed by other passengers with their smartphones. Dr. Dao was so badly injured that he will need reconstructive surgery. Compounding the damage was the tone deaf response from the airline, particularly its CEO, Oscar Munoz, to the incident. Munoz originally praised United’s employees and blamed Dao for the incident. After an international furor aroused, fueled on social media and late night television, Munoz apologized to Dao finally and made an appearance on Good Morning America that made him look anything but sincere.
Added to this debacle were fresh news stories of other passengers who had been threatened when United had overbooked flights, allegations that United Airlines was behind negative stories appearing in the media about Dao’s past, and reports that United was considering suing passengers who had recorded the Dao incident. United is of course facing lawsuits. The company’s market share has dropped by an estimated billion dollars. United’s public image is in ruins.
Soon things will get even worse for United. In the next few weeks, United will announce Munoz’s annual bonus that is expected to be $10 million or more. The cause for the bonus is raising United’s short term profits. How did Munoz achieve this? By having the airline sell more tickets for flights than they have seats (overbooking) and refusing to pay passengers enough to voluntarily give up their seats. The core reasons that led to the crisis United is facing.
So what should United do to begin repairing its image?
- Announce that it is deferring Munoz’s bonus. Or even better, have him announce he is rejecting it or donating it to charity.
- Announce that it will discontinue overbooking. Yes, the practice is legal and other airlines do it but this practice is now lethal for United.
- Munoz needs to do more interviews apologizing not only to Dao but all customers and announce what steps the airline is taking to assure better customer service.
- Announce a companywide customer service training program for all employees.
- Take out full page advertisements in leading newspapers across the nation apologizing and announcing again the steps the company is doing to improve the customer experience on all flights.
United needs to realize that the damage its reputation has suffered has been severe. It isn’t fatal but the longer the company takes in moving forward with its crisis recovery program, the worse its reputation will be.
United Airlines continues to generate bad publicity days after a man was violently dragged off a Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY flight due to the flight being overbooked and room being needed for 4 flight crew. The entire incident was filmed by other passengers with their smartphones. The man was bloodied as he was dragged on the floor from his seat. Compounding the damage was the tone deaf response from the airline, particularly its CEO, Oscar Munoz, to the incident. The entire story provides several lessons that business leaders can learn from and apply during a crisis.
- The CEO of the company is the public face of the company and his or her words reflect on the entire company. Following the incident and the ensuing media coverage, United CEO Oscar Munoz issued a statement merely apologizing for any inconvenience passengers may have experienced but never addressing the specific incident nor apologizing to the passenger directly. That statement alone was viewed as insensitive but then Munoz added to the media firestorm by sending a letter to United employees praising them for how they handled the situation and labeling the passenger as belligerent despite video contradicting this accusation. Munoz’s statements became the public face of United Airlines and has drawn condemnation and ridicule from the media, the public, and Hollywood. It has angered the Chinese market (the passenger was Chinese) which is United’s key growth market and driven down the airline’s stock by over a billion dollars. Munoz came across as uncaring in his response and as a result all of United is now perceived that way.
- Apologies Matter (and how they are worded even more). What should have been a one day media story has now been spread across several days and counting, due to Munoz’s lack of apology. If Munoz had offered a strong apology for what happened and condemned the actions, the media would be moving on by now. Rather by failing to issue a strongly worded apology and blaming the passenger, Munoz has kept the story alive in the media causing more days of bad press for United. His response has become a bigger story than the original incident and is overshadowing the original report.
- Everything can be recorded with a smartphone. Think of any television show (Chicago PD, Law & Order SVU, Chicago Justice, The Catch) where the police make an arrest or rough up a suspect and all of the bystanders are recording it with their phones. This isn’t just the stuff of Hollywood, it happens every day. Part of the reason this story got the amount of play that it has (besides United’s poor crisis management) is that fellow passengers were able to video the entire incident with their smartphones. The video images brought to life the episode in a powerful, emotional, and impactful way and created a readymade story for the media. People often forget anytime an incident happens people begin recording with their smartphones. Every occurence is now just not reported upon but has video accompanying it due to bystanders recording it.
- Social media drives narratives. This point cannot be stated enough. Social media is driving this story with the hashtag being #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos (#NeedCrisisManagement should be United’s hashtag in this crisis). The result is the traditional media is reporting on the social media outrage.
United Airlines serves as a lesson on what not to do during a crisis. Hopefully other companies will learn from United’s mistakes.