In today’s real-time world of social media and with critics everywhere, reputation management matters more than ever and it can be lost in an instant. By now, most of you have heard about how a passenger was forcibly dragged off a plane when he was bumped from a flight. If you missed it, watch this video here. It has gone viral in the worst possible way for United. Even United's competitors are taking advantage of its pr crisis.
United's policy says the airline can select passengers to bump to a later flight based on a priority system that can take into account how much passengers paid, how often they fly, whether missing that flight could affect a connecting flight and how early they checked in for their flight. People with disabilities and unaccompanied minors are generally the last to be bumped.
Three Major Mistakes
United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz made three major blunders:
- His initial statement, shown above, came off as insensitive. Using the term “re-accommodate” rings of corporate speak and interpreted as insensitive. Re-accommodate does not explain why the video shows the bloodied and forcibly dragged off the flight.
- Munoz sent an email to employees late Monday defending his staff's action and calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent." The video shows a passenger not willing to give up his seat. This further demonstrates a lack of compassion or understanding for the passenger’s plight.
- This incident could have been prevented without the use of force. For a company whose sole focus over the past year was to repair a damaged customer service reputation, the extreme actions taken by the airline prove that the customer is not a core value to their overall brand. They may claim it is, but actions speak louder than words. Everyone has a price; United could have offered more compensation, which would have alleviated the need to randomly bump someone from the flight. Looking back, offering a customer two thousand dollars is nothing compared to the mess they are in today.
- Acknowledge there was an incident – Munoz’s first statement should have acknowledged there was an incident and that his entire team was looking into what occurred. A simple statement of fact.
- Accept responsibility – Munoz should have accepted responsibility for the actions of his employees in sincere, humanized language. There is no place for corporate-speak during a crisis in today’s business environment.
- Apologize – A sincere apology for the actions of his employees can go a long way. Even if they were following company policy, Munoz could have apologized earlier in the day.
- Release a plan – Munoz could have been more transparent. Tell the public that you are developing a plan and release details about what that plan will entail.
Too little, too late?
It was only after the stock tanked that Munoz released an apology. The statement reads:
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.
Although the stock bounced back a bit after the statement was released, the damage this incident has caused to United's reputation may be irreversible, at least for some consumers. The question remains, will Munoz remain at the helm of United or will this debacle cost him his job?
All Companies Need a Crisis Communications Plan
The timing of the apology indicates that the company did not have a solid pr crisis plan in place. All companies, regardless of size or market need to have a clear and concise crisis communications plan that can be activated immediately.
Here are three tips on how to handle a burgeoning crisis.
- Be proactive - When you learn about a crisis that may affect your business, it’s imperative to jump into high gear and investigate into the facts immediately. There is no time to waste as rumors can start, and stock prices can plummet. Designate a crisis team, get as much specific and accurate information as possible, respond quickly and act conclusively. Crisis communication plans allow an organization to take charge of how and which details of an event are communicated. Remember that the first hour or two are critical to getting the word out and setting the record.
- Be transparent - Once the facts are gathered and statements written, information should be communicated and updated on a regular basis. Consistent communications during a crisis demonstrates that you have nothing to hide and help squelch rumors. Honest emotion and sympathy for the victims is also critical in crisis communications.
- Be accountable - If a mistake has been made, it’s important to take appropriate responsibility to keep your credibility intact. Start with outward recognition of the problem that exists and explain that something will be done to remedy the situation. Communicate strong, simple messages and provide enough context and background to demonstrate that your business acted responsibly and show that you have the situation under control.
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