Our Shared Values
Then that video of a United Airlines' passenger--being forcibly removed from an overbooked flight--seemingly took over the internet yesterday morning. It was horrifying to watch and clear that such bad press could quickly snowball without the proper response--and, in this age of social media, it didn't take long for worse to happen.
The story first came to my attention around noon on Monday, when the daily "The Post Most" e-newsletter from The Washington Post appeared in my inbox with the subject "A man wouldn't leave an overbooked United flight. So he was dragged off, battered and limp." I hadn't really paid attention to the news earlier in the day, but this story certainly seemed to be on every website that I looked at from that point on.
The communications professional in me was immediately curious about United's response. Surely it was not policy to use physical force during a situation that was not posing a threat to anyone's health or safety? Surely a major airline would be prepared to respond in a timely and proper fashion?
So I went to the newsroom section of United.com. There was no acknowledgement of the viral video quickly taking over the day's headlines. However, the second most recent post was titled "United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz Named PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year." That's promising, I thought to myself, while wondering why the CEO had yet to respond.
Response to United Express Flight 3411
April 10, 2017
“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.” – Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines
#NewUnitedAirlinesMottos began trending on Twitter. United was a top story on the evening's news and then the punchline of many a joke on late night. Yet, while the day may have been over, the United story was far from being put to bed. By this morning, the video was causing outrage in China, a key market for the airline with $19.7 billion in annual sales, and United's stock value had dropped by $1.2 billion before lunchtime. Then came denouncements from the U.S. Travel Association and, later, the Association of Flight Attendants; followed by news of a U.S. Department of Transportation investigation and Senate investigation.
Beyond the First 24 Hours
United Airlines spends an estimated $170 million on annual advertising. If the gains in market share garnered by said advertising weren't wiped out with the viral video, the CEO's response certainly eliminated any lingering benefits. It's a near impossible challenge to have effective marketing with the lack of customer service and empathy--displayed by United--from the top down.
With that kind of budget, it also begs the question: why doesn't this massive brand have some sort of crisis communications guidelines in place and a crisis management firm on retainer? Sure there would have been damage even with the proper response on Monday, but the initial silence followed by a staggeringly ill-advised statement only compounded the problem--keeping United in the headlines for another news cycle and counting.
United could have even hired this one-man marketing communications firm. Here's what would I have advised the CEO to say:
Our job is to provide a safe, efficient, and positive experience for all who choose to fly United. We clearly failed in this instance and will act swiftly to make any and all necessary changes to our policies and procedures. We will begin with a thorough investigation of all steps taken by our crew and security to gain full understanding of what lead to this incident and then provide training to ensure nothing like this occurs again.
We owe it to our customers to do right by them. All passengers on this flight will receive a full refund. Furthermore, we will reach out to the gentleman who was removed from the plane to ensure he is receiving any needed medical care, along with his fellow passengers, who no doubt were also negatively impacted by what they witnessed.
I offer my heartfelt apologies to all who were impacted by our poor judgement and I hope the flying public will give us an opportunity to re-earn their trust.
It's one thing when you don't quite know what to say, but hopefully you know when it's time to seek some outside and unbiased expertise—even if you're Communicator of the Year.
Do you agree with my suggested statement? What other advice would you give the CEO of United? Share you thoughts in the comments section below.