The viral video of police dragging a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight was bad enough. But United and its CEO dug themselves into a deeper hole, public relations professionals say, by failing to respond to the crisis quickly and with empathy for the passenger.
A passenger who refused requests to get off the plane, after he was one of four people supposedly picked at random via computer for removal, was dragged down the aisle and off the plane by airport police. The incident lit up social media and has caused United a great deal of headaches, with its stock falling Tuesday and politicians calling for investigations.
Shea Andersen, vice president at the Boise office of the national and Ohio-based advertising and public relations firm Fahlgren Mortine, said CEO Oscar Munoz erred by waiting until Monday, the day after the incident, to issue a statement calling the incident at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport “upsetting.”
Earlier that day, an internal memo was leaked in which Munoz defended United employees, saying that they had followed protocols and that the passenger was “disruptive and belligerent.”
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Munoz released a longer and more apologetic message Tuesday afternoon. “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” he said.
“I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. ... I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard.”
But that came two days too late, Andersen said.
“The statement should have been immediate and expressed basic human concern for what we all recognize was an appalling action,” Andersen said. “CEOs are paid the big bucks to take responsibility for things like this.”
Munoz’s first statement came off as insensitive in part because of his apology “for having to re-accommodate these customers,” said Chad Biggs, chief content officer at Red Sky PR in Boise.
“You have to choose your words carefully,” Biggs said. “Tone is a huge part of that.”
Fahlgren Mortine and Red Sky PR offer crisis management as part of their public relations services. Biggs said he has helped businesses manage employee embezzlement charges and faulty products. Andersen said he helped a large employer plan how to lay off hundreds of employees without exacerbating a bad situation.
“The basic principles of these things are to tell the truth, tell it fast and tell it first to those affected,” Andersen said. “When you get up the next day, do it all over again.”
Smartphones and their abilities to take and upload videos — like the viral United video — have changed crisis management, Biggs said.
When a damaging video gets passed around Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, companies need to respond quickly, even if they don’t yet have all of the pertinent information, such as whether employees broke protocol.
“You really have to react to what the public is seeing ahead of the facts,” Biggs said.
Andersen said smart business leaders enlist PR pros to form contingency plans before a crisis strikes. He often asks leaders to form plans in case they are arrested for a heinous crime. They often respond with a dirty look, but that’s the kind of planning that helps businesses through crises, he said.
“Those are much more productive conversations than the ones you get when things have already gone wrong,” Andersen said.
But having a contingency plan does not mean it will be executed during crisis, he said. The chaos can get the better of employees, and business leaders can go off-script or fail to sound sincere.
“In-house corporate communications professionals around the globe are thanking their lucky stars they are not working for United,” Andersen said. “I hope the same people are saying to their company, ‘Let’s get ready for some bad things to happen to us.’ ”
United’s stock fell 1.1 percent Monday, reducing its market value by $255 million, MarketWatch reported.
Zach Kyle: 208-377-6464, @ZachKyleNews
United Airlines responded to the incident by posting the following messages from CEO Oscar Munoz on its Twitter page:
Monday, April 10, 11.27 a.m.
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
Tuesday, April 11, around 1 p.m.
“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.
“I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.
“I promise you we will do better.