With the whole world melting down over a United passenger being dragged off a plane, United’s public relations response has been abysmal.
- They sought to distance themselves pointing out that it’s a United Express flight (operated by Republic Airlines)
- They apologized that customers has to be re-accommodated rather than that a customer was dragged and bloodied
- Their response focused on why the customer defied police rather than how a customer service problem became a law enforcement problem.
CEO Oscar Munoz Inaugurates United’s First New Boeing 777-300ER
As I wrote yesterday,
When a crisis event happens, don’t run from it run towards it so critics have nowhere to go.
Munoz shouldn’t say the customer was inconvenienced, he should say it was a terrible, horrible experience. He shouldn’t say it’s upsetting, he’s angry and he’s going to get to the bottom of it. Be active. Show actual concern, don’t be mealy mouthed.
Since United sought to downplay the situation — even as they’re hardly the only ones to blame here — customer outrage grew. Memes like this one spread over the internet, and customers the world over vowed never to fly United (many of whom weren’t already United customers and unclear how many of them will keep their word).
I’ve taken tremendous heat for saying that the police who actually bloodied the passenger deserve the most criticism. And also that the passenger, who was clearly getting hosed being booted from the flight, should have gotten off when the airline ordered him to do so.
I’ve taken that criticism for readers for much the same reason as United. To most people it doesn’t matter whether United followed the rules, that they aren’t the ones who hurt the passenger, or that the only real solution is a change to the culture of security where everything escalates to law enforcement. People are angry at United, and aren’t open to anyone suggesting that United’s blame is being overblown.
My role isn’t to make tell readers what they want to hear, and I’m comfortable with argument and criticism.
United, though, has taken the worst possible approach unless their goal is to stoke the flames of public criticism (which it cannot possibly be). They’re in a tough spot.
- United doesn’t want to throw its employees (or those of Republic Airlines operating under the United brand) under the bus. United’s internal procedures appear to have been followed, and they’re consistent with what other US airlines do and are following guidelines set by the Department of Transportation.
- That’s not an excuse because something awful happened to this man, it suggests that instead of blaming the individual employees on that night we should ask tough questions about involuntary denied boarding procedures.
- United doesn’t want to throw Chicago’s airport police under the bus, that will create a problem for them at a major hub.
There’s an old saying that one bad anecdote makes a regulation and two makes a law, we should be careful of rulemaking from public shock without understanding the consequences of changing the rules.
And we should understand what involuntary denied boarding is, why it happens, and how often — 75% less frequently than before deregulation and less often even as planes have gotten more full.
United needs to quell the hordes, both for their own immediate business needs and to avoid a reaction that brings about bad rules detrimental to customers and to their business.
So what Oscar Munoz should have done this this: offer a clear message of “We messed up. That’s not our employees fault. We need to look at our procedures to make sure this never happens again. We will learn from this, and we will do better.”
He should have said this even though United isn’t solely to blame for what happened, but they’re certainly to blame for their poor crisis communications response.
Now that we’re on day two of the story, and United’s response hasn’t helped, Munoz needs to up the ante and go on some late night talk shows — appearances which will be rebroadcast the next day — and take a lot of ribbing for it while talking about having the best employees in the business, being committed to the best customer service, and promising to ensure the incident doesn’t repeat itself.
Update: Oscar Munoz has a new apology that, I think, strikes the right tone:
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.