The Big Pitch: What should United Airlines be doing to minimize the damage to its image?

MICHAEL YOUNG, Porter Novelli Convergence Group, Chicago

MICHAEL YOUNG, Porter Novelli Convergence Group, Chicago

MICHAEL YOUNG, Porter Novelli Convergence Group, Chicago

Who’s to blame for the cancelled flights and delays is totally


No one cares; passengers will only remember that they got stranded. The

stakes for United are very high and go well beyond the anticipated

dollars 150 million dip in third-quarter revenue. The confidence and

loyalty of employees, passengers and investors hangs in the balance, and

this is no time for brinkmanship and finger-pointing by either side in

the labor dispute.

CEO James Goodwin should personally get out to delay-ravaged airports,

particularly Chicago’s O’Hare, to speak directly to passengers. Telling

passengers that ’we are sorry’ goes a long way, but the words must be

backed up with action. Management and labor should be seen as working

together to quickly resolve the problem, perhaps in a Camp David-style

retreat. Fifty thousand frequent-flier miles for each passenger who was

inconvenienced would go a long way, too.

LARRY SMITH, Institute for Crisis Management, Clarksville, IN

United has to solve the problem first. Companies with crisis issues

often don’t think about the PR aspect, but when they do, they expect PR

to fix their image and solve their problems while they ignore or wrestle

the cause of the crisis. I don’t think any right-thinking PR consultant

should tell a company that he or she can solve the problem unless said

company has a plan to solve the problem. As for the value of telling

passengers the company is concerned, how reassured would you be if I

say, ’This is going to be okay, but you can’t get where you want to go’?

I don’t think United can improve its image, its reputation or its

customer relationship until it has a solution to the problems with its


BILL PATTERSON, Reputation Management Associates, Columbus, OH

United should have started months ago. Most air travelers believe United

knew this was coming. The Boy Scout motto, ’Be prepared,’ is always the

top component in any crisis-management plan. When a class-action lawsuit

against the airline was filed on August 11, news reports said the

company had ’no comment.’ You don’t have to talk about the litigation to

say something positive about United Airlines. A lot of companies say ’no

comment’ when involved in litigation, and it is always wrong. Be open,

be honest and be quick. That is the mantra of crisis communications. And

the final question United should ask is, ’Have all our spokespeople and

top executives been through media training recently, so that their

responses are unified and polished?’

Matthew Harrington, Edelman, New York

The moment to minimize damage to United’s reputation has past. While the

entire airline industry has been plagued with extraordinary delays and

cancelled flights due to weather, United has added to its problems with

the ongoing pilots battle. The messages carried by the media aren’t

about what United is doing to help its customers, but rather convey that

the only action they can manage is canceling flights. United needs to

start focusing more on its passengers and less on toeing a hard

financial line with its pilots. While United ultimately may win at the

bargaining table, it will lose far more in terms of customer loyalty and


As with so many of the airlines, their frequent-flier miles can be a

powerful tool. They should offer each passenger 5,000 miles for every

flight that is cancelled or delayed more than 30 minutes between now and

the end of the year

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