Flop of the Month: United Airlines turns passenger drama into full-blown crisis

It was a tough choice between the United Airways fiasco and the Pepsi 'protest ad' debacle featuring Kendall Jenner for April's Flop of Month, but the airline edged it.

United's unfathomably bad handling of an incident that saw a passenger forcibly ejected from an over-sold flight is a perfect example of how a bad comms response can turn a drama into a full-scale corporate crisis.

The backlash started when a disturbing video of Dr David Dao's ejection, which showed his bloodied face after seemingly heavy-handed treatment by enforcement officers, went viral on social media.

United tweeted this response from CEO Oscar Munoz:

The use of the jarring corporate euphemism "re-accommodate" suggested a total lack of empathy and understanding.

Munoz also missed the mark in a follow-up internal note, widely reported in the media, in which he focused on United staff ("I... emphatically stand behind all of you") rather than passengers. The problem was compounded by the CEO calling Dao "disruptive and belligerent", when public sympathy was clearly with the doctor.

The fiasco, which came two weeks after the #leggingsban incident where United barred two girls from boarding a flight because of their attire, received widespread negative media coverage globally. United's share price fell temporarily and there were calls for Munoz to resign.

The incident was particularly disappointing, seeing as Munoz was widely seen to have improved United's reputation and was viewed as a good communicator. He was even named Communicator of the Year at the most recent PRWeek US Awards, which related to his work in 2015 and 2016.

The nature of United's response could be linked to the fact the airline's SVP of corporate comms, Jim Olson, reports to the group's head of HR and labour relations. Might a direct reporting line to the CEO have helped avert the crisis?

Munoz later said he felt "shame and embarrassment" and the airline changed its policy towards overselling. He also called it a "humbling experience" that will "prove to be a watershed moment" for United.

But it was too little, too late for this reputational catastrophe that will be used as a case study of bad corporate PR for years to come.

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