Steve Hamilton and Andrew Touhy
In what was the airline video shown around the world that generated a grave PR disaster for United Airlines, their response to the crisis only made it worse. Even as this story continues to unfold, PR and crisis management professionals can refer to this case as a blueprint of what not to do.
As could be expected shares in United plummeted shortly after the incident, and the company was met with worldwide criticism on social media.
Following the current customary practice after a crisis, United CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement in response to the incident.
Munoz’s statement, released via United’s corporate Twitter account, was hardly apologetic, drew heightened criticism towards the company, and rolled the incident into what has now been a week’s worth of front page news coverage. The length of this story’s news cycle and the potential long term reputation damage it may cause the company has yet to unfold.
In response to further fallout and criticism of United’s initial statement and management of the incident, Munoz released a second statement offering personal and company-wide accountability and apology for mishandling the incident, written with sentiments that seemingly hope to reverse his initial response.
In what could have otherwise been viewed as a genuine effort to publicly apologize and claim responsibility was only further discredited when the entirety of Munoz’s internal email to United employees was leaked claiming the passenger in question was “disruptive and belligerent.”
As is typically the case in crises situations of this magnitude, there are often few ways to make the situation better, but many ways in which to make it worse. United would have been best advised to internally review the facts of the situation in their entirety, and then consider the consequences and fallout before releasing an initial statement.
Additionally, one must assume that everything put in writing today will be leaked one way or another. Regardless of how genuinely apologetic Munoz may have been in crafting his second statement, his contradictory internal email sunk any hope for public trust. This situation is a mess, and there may not be any other plausible crisis management strategy other than one that sees United take a huge hit to their reputation and wallet, admit complete fault and responsibility for the incident, and publicly communicate how they will implement practices to ensure this never happens again.