United Airlines: Worst PR Case Study I have ever seen

Apr 11 2017

I have worked in a PR career for 30 years–that is a long time! If experience is the best teacher (and I think it is), I have learned much about corporate PR strategies over my career and I have concluded that this United Airlines story of a passenger being dragged off a plane is the worst I have seen in a long time. Maybe ever.

How does United recover from this unfortunate incident? They won’t. My best guess is that by now, the world has seen the video–it has garnered national media attention and lit up Twitter and Facebook with graphic footage of awful mistreatment of a passenger being assaulted and dragged off the plane.

There are, of course, many things wrong with this situation. For United, they are going to be boycotted and sued by the passenger who was assaulted and maybe others who witnessed it all. The airline will spend millions defending itself in the court of law but more importantly, in the court of public opinion.

Assaulting paying passengers and treating them in the way that the Chicago security/police officer did is wrong. I think criminal. Why do airlines overbook? Corporate greed is why. They make money banking on selling more seats as many passengers miss connections or don’t show up for a flight. Rather than reserve those seats, they re-sell them in advance. And somewhere, written in their policy is their right to kick a paid customer off a flight. This has to change. How many businesses do you know that could sell you something, you pay for it, and then it gets taken away legally. Not right at all.

Next, comes the airlines terrible response. The CEO actually apologized for having to “re-accommodate” passengers. What type of PR person wrote that? After I read his response–which was too late by the way–I wondered if he actually saw the video before he approved what copy the PR team prepared for him to approve and release.

What REALLY happens in big, public companies like United when there is a PR crisis? The lawyers and PR team huddle up to look at policy and decide what to do. The PR team drafts what they THINK should be the right response (many times they are so out of touch they cannot possibly get it right) and they run it by the legal team–sometimes this takes hours–for final approval by the C-suite or CEO in this case and it gets released.  In this case–the response was so bad that I truly wondered if the CEO saw the video before his response was issued. Even worse if he did see it and approved that response!

It was the wrong response. You only get ONE chance to come out with the right response. United’s CEO, Mr. Oscar Munoz, will likely be fired over this entire event. And he probably should be. The PR team should be replaced as well. It seems United has not learned from the past (remember “United Breaks Guitars?”). Just a few weeks ago they had a “legging” attire issue where a gate agent made some passengers change clothes due to some policy United has about non-rev passengers attire policy. This blew up social media as well but was a much different issue. You would think United would get it. They don’t.

So the bottom line is that no amount of “good PR” can help United now. They had a small window to make this right and they missed it completely. Nothing could be more important than dropping everything to correct this horrible incident. Was the CEO too busy to mess with a really smart response? Did the PR team think it would just go away? PR is 24/7 now and Twitter is the trip wire for news. PR teams don’t have the luxury of time in a case like this. That’s why brands need experienced PR professionals who can make good and right decisions on the fly (pun intended). And social media has CLEARLY changed traditional PR. If you are going to do PR, you must be ready for the viral backlash. Pepsi learned a lot this week–one would hope. One thing I think about and I tweeted yesterday is that we’ve had social media now for 10 years. Why do brands keep missing the mark when it comes to PR? (Target, Pepsi, United…)

United’s Twitter account is comical in light of yesterday’s incident. Tweets about “feeling blue” when flying over the Bahamas will only set the airline up for the satire and harpooning it deserves. In a real crisis, a company like United needs a unified strategy and Twitter would certainly be a part of that strategy. As I write this I note that 21 hours ago they finally pinned a tweet with the CEO’s written statement–the one that missed the mark completely. Adding fuel to the fire, that statement.

United made the first mistake by overbooking. The next mistake was to kick people off the plane AFTER they had ALREADY boarded. Then to do what they allowed and ordered as seen in the video is almost surreal to me. Given these happened (they shouldn’t have happened in the first place), the ONLY thing to have done was admit guilt, apologize for the truth–the video is correct–and not try and blame the passenger. I think the passenger was fully within his rights to not want to leave the plane. United had a choice at this critical point and they really messed it up. You cannot reverse what happened, but you can own up and try and sincerely make it right. The CEO should have written a far different statement and followed it up with actionable steps. A single statement isn’t a PR strategy. Next thing they’ll do is ban cell phones with cameras from the plane. That is not the solution either.

They’ll find out soon enough that the cost of doing all the wrong things far outweighs the cost of doing the right things.