'Disastrous response that made things worse': UK PR experts lay into United Airlines and its precarious CEO

PR professionals have condemned United Airlines and its CEO for having "gotten everything wrong" and brought about "one of the most vitriolic online reactions to a communications crisis ever" in its response to news of a passenger being violently dragged off one of its planes.

United Airlines has found itself at the centre of an international reputational storm and intense criticism on Twitter over its treatment of a passenger booked on Flight 3411 to Louisville on Sunday.

With the plane overbooked, four passengers were asked to leave. One, who said he was a doctor needing to return home to treat patients, is seen in a video filmed by another passenger being pulled out of his seat and dragged down the aisle. The airline's CEO Oscar Munoz said the passenger had been "disruptive and belligerent".

A short statement posted on the company's website yesterday called the incident "an upsetting event to all of us here at United", and said the company was "moving with a sense of urgency" to review what had happened.

Several UK comms pros have criticised the airline's handling of the situation, with Munoz coming in for particularly harsh words.

'Munoz must go'

Warren Johnson, founder and CEO of the agency W, said: "Every CEO should know the seed of any crisis will be fuelled by how they handle it, and Oscar Munoz is in serious danger of accelerating his own resignation with such an insensitive response.

"The fact is a customer was assaulted on his plane. He should have owned up and acknowledged the disgraceful handling of the situation and the fact that all customers on the flight were rightly appalled. Instead, he has stood by a grossly negligent, tone-deaf response that ignores how his customers feel and the media’s reaction."

"While he is the CEO of a massive organisation and clearly can’t control every detail, he can certainly control the absolute lack of empathy and compassion he has shown. Blame lies firmly with him for his unsympathetic reaction and United’s clear lack of protocol for what happens when a customer refuses to be moved. People are now united against United and ultimately, are right to call for Munoz’s resignation."

Francis Ingham, director-general of the PRCA, said: "This is a prime example of an organisation’s response making the situation worse. United's belligerent defence, and frankly crazy use of language, has done the unthinkable - made a terrible situation even worse.

"I imagine that no PR person had a hand in the drafting of the CEO's comments - it will either have been him directly, on some misplaced adrenalin high, or it will have been United's lawyers. Either way, the impact on United’s reputation will long-lasting, deep, and mightily expensive."

Ingham is one of several people to today call for Munoz's departure, saying: "They're going to have to change their culture and make that change real -so they will need to be the friendliest, most accommodating airline ever. And yes, some people need to lose their job. If I were on United’s Board, the first of those people would be its CEO."

Media consultant Grant Feller said that Munoz's apology was "one of the most meaningless, half-baked non-apologies ever written by someone who, one assumes, enjoys being thought of as an industry leader".

"Oscar Munoz apologises for 'having to re-accommodate customers', is conducting a 'detailed review' and 'reaching out to this passenger'. Having seen the video multiple times, I’m pretty sure not a single person anticipating boarding a plane today would welcome the prospect of a member of United Airlines reaching out to them now. Some reach," he said.

Strong apology needed

Julia Perowne, founder and CEO of Perowne International, said: "When you have literally been caught red handed treating a passenger like this, there is nothing that you can do as a brand apart from put your hands up, take responsibility, send a senior, respected member of the organisation out to apologise and insist you are putting measures in place to ensure that this never happens again.

"United’s apology so far has been weak to say the least and this story has generated global condemnation of the airline. I would then offer the aggrieved passenger a lifetime of free United flights. This will be far more economical than the cost this story is doing to United’s reputation and the loss of business. I very much doubt the passenger would take the offer anyway…."

Social media strikes again

Stephen Waddington, chief engagement officer at Ketchum London, has provide the comment below: "United doesn’t appear to have learnt from the Dave Carroll broken guitar incident eight years ago. Then, a broken guitar launched the YouTube, book and speaking career of a young musician. The lack of trust in the brand has now resulted in one of the biggest and most vitriolic online reactions to a communications crisis ever.

"Every aspect of this story is being played out publicly from footage in the cabin of the original incident to the CEO's response last night to United employees. United needs to get on the front foot and start putting its customers and the public first."

Cass Helstrip, MD of travel PR agency White Tiger PR, echoed the sentiment, saying: "The reality is that with the immediacy of social media, customer services operatives need to be aware of the PR implications of this kind of decision. As we have seen, things can go viral extremely quickly.

"There is more onus than ever before on internal communications. It's a classic example of it's not what you do but the way you do it. Transparency is always the way forward in these situations."

Iain Anderson, executive chair of Cicero Group, said: "Customer service is the same side of the PR coin. You don't treat customers badly and then try to play it down. In his case you make an unreserved apology and reach out immediately. A PR and customer service disaster case study."

John Harrington and Robert Smith also contributed to this report

A crisis can strike at any moment and can take any form. Join us at PRWeek's annual Crisis Communications conference in London to learn exactly how (and how not) to react - click here to find out more.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.