What should United Airlines' PR response be having done the unimaginable?

United Airlines footage / Source: Twitter

Let’s be clear. Dragging a 69-year old doctor off a plane so that one of your employees can take his seat is always going to be an unmitigated reputational disaster. No response you can possibly offer up, no matter how skilfully it is framed, is going to wipe away the harm.

But what United has proved is that it is indeed possible to do the unimaginable -and to make a situation where you assault your customers even worse.

What was wrong with their response? I’d highlight three things:

1. It was incredibly defensive, right from the beginning.‘This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United’. Well it’s probably more upsetting to some (e.g. your customers, especially one of them) than to others (e.g. your chief executive, Oscar Munoz). In trying to pretend that you too are an aggrieved party, you’ve signalled immediately that you’re trying to duck responsibility.

2. It deploys the non-apology apology, and in doing so uses language no normal person would reach for. Rather than saying ‘I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers’; Mr Munoz would be better advised to say ‘I apologize for the unacceptable events on board our aircraft’.

3. It had no humanity. And this is the key point. Any normal person watching the video of what happened on that plane would be appalled. Jaw-droppingly appalled. This statement is covered in the fingerprints of an adrenalin-pumped chief executive, and a passive aggressive legal team. I’d wager decent money that no PR person got anywhere near it -they would’ve immediately screamed in horror at the catastrophic mistake United was about to make.

So what should United do now?

Some problems simply are not amenable to a short term fix. And this is one such problem.

They need to follow standard crisis techniques. They need to apologise, and be seen to mean it. They need to prove that they share the shock of their passengers and the watching world -and that they have put in place immediate and significant changes so that it can never happened again.

They need -somehow- to make recompense to the customer they assaulted, and for him to say that he’s happy with the resolution. And they need to build up a reputation as a genuinely friendly, customer-focussed airline, that once made a terrible mistake, but has learned from it, and changed fundamentally.

That would have been a mighty difficult challenge before their chIef executive made his initial statement. And before he doubled down in an email to staff saying “I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right”. Now, it’s virtually impossible.

What’s the answer?

Well, United need a defining moment that shows they accept they were terribly, terribly wrong, and that they are embracing change. Something that is unmissable. Something that proves that the people at the top take responsibility.

So Mr Munoz needs to imagine that his airline is Japanese for a moment, rather than American. He needs to do the Japanese CEO thing. He needs to say the buck stops with him, and that he is therefore resigning with immediate effect, and without any pay off. And if he doesn’t do that, then his shareholders need to re-accommodate him out of his office.

And then, and only then, can United move on, and ‘fly right’ again.

Francis Ingham MPRCA is the director general of the PRCA.

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Francis Ingham

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