Learning from United’s vow to ‘do better’

PR pros now know what not to do for an apology, but there are a few other takeaways that communicators can apply to future crises. Consider these insights.

Image by InSapphoWeTrust via / CC BY-SA 2.0

United’s skies are continuing to look overcast.

Responding to backlash from a now-viral video in which a passenger was dragged off a United flight after refusing to give up his seat, United Airline’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, issued another apology on Tuesday.

Here’s the full text of his latest mea culpa:

A message from Oscar: I’m sorry. We will fix this.

Dear Team,

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 an 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.



His earlier apology—especially when coupled with an internal letter in which he stood behind his employees—generated even more criticism. (We outlined it here.)

Apart from that primer on how not to give an apology, here are a few more takeaways for brand managers:

1. The cost of a crisis is often not measured in “here and now.”

Too many brand managers—along with other organizational leaders—look at crises in terms of decreasing immediate costs, without taking into consideration the future. To examine the common misstep, let’s turn again to United—specifically, a 2009 incident in which a traveler claimed United broke his guitar.

The airline refused to pay $1,200 to have the $3,500 guitar fixed. Here’s what it ended up saving costing United, reported Fast Company:

According to the Times
of London
, “…within four days of the song
going online, the gathering thunderclouds of bad PR caused United Airlines’
stock price to suffer a mid-flight stall, and it plunged by 10%,
costing shareholders $180 million. Which, incidentally, would have bought
Carroll more than 51,000 replacement guitars.”

If you’re not willing to pay now, you stand the chance of paying much more later, whether in the form of lawsuits, stock price decline or a consumer boycott.

2. If you don’t work to control the narrative, the narrative will control you.


A delayed response and lukewarm corporate apology (that common fallback is wearing out its welcome) enabled consumers, particularly social media users, to steer the crisis’s narrative into angry mob territory.

The backlash isn’t dying down, either. A glance at the front pages of Imgur or Reddit show several posts about the PR nightmare, many Facebook news feeds are clogged with posts about the controversy and Twitter users ridiculed the airline under the trending hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos:

Brand managers who have tried to control the narrative online (misunderstanding the nature of social media and the 24/7 news cycle) have faced reputation nightmares, such as McDonald’s #McDStories or the failed #MyNYPD campaign.

In a crisis, it’s even more important to respond as quickly and transparently as possible. Corporate-speak and PR jargon won’t do: Consumers want to hear that you recognize your mistake(s) and want to know your plan for making it right.

3. Visuals are everything.


As United’s reputation is plummeting, others are benefiting.

A few organizations—notably Southwest, which purportedly joked about the incident on one of its flights —gained a reputational boost as people turned away from United.

Others are taking a reprieve from backlash as angry consumers set their sights on the beleaguered airline. These include Nivea, that recently sparked anger with its “white is purity” ad and the Federal Communications Commission, which is moving forward to reverse net neutrality, putting internet users’ privacy on the chopping block .

Why the focus on United instead of other recent missteps? United’s incident came with a video.

It’s not just social media that fans the flames of indignation and offense—it’s the presence of visuals. Overbooking is a common practice in airlines, though several lawmakers are now calling for an investigation into United, along with an overall look at airline and airport practices.

What sets United apart from the other incidents of being removed from a flight or denied a seat is a few short videos, shot on smartphones, so that consumers around the world can imagine what it felt like to sit on that flight and watch a passenger’s head hit an armrest.

Visuals are paramount to good PR and marketing campaigns, but they can cut down a brand’s reputation in no time.



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