3 PR Lessons We Learned from the United Airlines Fiasco

April 21, 2017 Steve West

If you haven’t heard about United Airline’s latest fiasco—passenger David Dao being forcefully dragged off an overbooked flight from Chicago to St. Louis—then you’re probably living under a rock with Kendall Jenner sipping on a Pepsi.

But seriously, United messed up. They messed up big. So much in fact that the mere mention of United Airlines likely triggers an image of a stunned and bloody David Dao being hauled through the plane aisle by law enforcement.

Where do we begin to explain what went wrong with United’s handling of “re-accommodating” incident? Thanks to their actions, they inadvertently wrote the guide on how NOT to handle a PR crisis. Every move made within the first 24 hours resulted in an explosion of negative attention that they are still attempting to recover from nearly two weeks later.

Over the last month, United Airlines has been mentioned across TV, online news and blogs over 140k times. Nearly 121k (86%) of those mentions occurred after April 10, the date of the David Dao incident. This story went viral and stayed viral.

Curious as to the small peak of mentions in late March? That spike refers to United’s previous PR nightmare—the aptly titled “leggings-gate.” To refresh your memory, two teenage girls were barred from boarding their United flight because they were wearing leggings. Needless to say, it hasn’t been a great month for United, but the David Dao crisis was so bad, “leggings-gate” is all but forgotten at this point.

So, as United CEO Oscar Munoz preps for his inevitable congressional hearing on the incident, we thought it best to highlight a couple lessons to take away from United’s handling of this massive crisis situation.

#1 ALWAYS BE PREPARED

We don’t mean to state the obvious here. Crisis management should be par for the course in the world of public relations. However, when considering United’s initial response after the event, and their ever-changing position on the issue, it’s easy to conclude that their PR team lacked a well-thought out and prepared crisis strategy.

They didn’t stay on message—releasing two varying statements within the first 24 hours—making their stance on the issue difficult to understand. And the more it evolved, the harder it become to trust their words and actions.

Crises are unavoidable and unpredictable, but the worst mistake you can make is a knee-jerk reaction to the situation. Be proactive and set a strategy that keeps relevant parties and stakeholders informed on the issues arising so your message remains steady and consistent. Of course, crises can unravel rapidly, but prepping for the inevitable is a must, so be sure to have access to all information in-the-moment, including how, when and where it’s being reported.

#2 STICK TO THE FACTS—SCRATCH THAT—KNOW THE FACTS THEN STICK TO THEM

No doubt the biggest mistake made by United was Munoz’s initial response.

We’ll get to the public’s reaction in a bit—but the fallout stems from Munoz’s denial of the circumstances that led to the situation. While United claimed to be a victim of a common scenario—overbooking a flight and re-accommodating customers—it had actually fully booked and boarded a flight, then failed to coerce passengers to stay back and let required United crew take their spots.

By taking a stand of “we’re right, you’re wrong,” Munoz and United’s response reflected their lack of facts and knowledge of the situation. They supported their staff—who made mistakes—and criticized David Dao—who made no mistakes.

Once the public became well-versed in the details of the event, it was too late for United to backpedal. The media machine took the wheel and worked quickly to inform the masses, so sticking to the facts is of the utmost importance.

#3 CAREFULLY NAVIGATE PUBLIC SENTIMENT

As expected, Munoz’s response was rightly deemed insensitive, defensive, and it showed no remorse or fault for the event. It was a failed attempt at passing blame to the passenger, but multiple cell phones recorded the entire situation, giving people immediate access to form their judgement. And to no one’s surprise, people did not sympathize with the use of excessive force.

Negative sentiment magnified when people reacted to both the incident and United’s response, snowballing to a point of no return. The damage was done, and no crisis strategy could pull United out of the trenches.

PR’s understanding of public sentiment is crucial when handling crises. Social media is obviously a quick an easy gauge of public opinion, but understanding how TV and online media outlets are reporting the situation is a necessity. This earned media is very powerful and influential to public perception, so immediate access to this media data is essential to navigating crises as they develop.

United was guilty of practically every classic mistake a PR team can make during a crisis situation. United’s actions throughout the last 10 days have become a shining example of what can happen if you don’t approach every crisis strategically.

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