It’s being called one of the biggest PR blunders in recent history. We’ve all seen the headlines and Facebook posts by online jokers now. Southwest: “We beat the competition. Not you.” United: “We’ll drag you all over the world” and “We have red eye and black eye flights available.” Indeed, if you haven’t caught the story and images of a bloodied passenger being forcibly pulled from a United Airlines flight on Sunday, April 9th, then you must have been literally, deliberately hiding under a rock.
PR pundits everywhere are calling the incident and United CEO’s Oscar Munoz’s initial response — “I apologize for having to ‘re-accommodate’ these customers” — half-hearted and insufficient, and called for a more heartfelt response, which he issued two days later. Which makes many in the PR world wonder, was this “appropriate” apology that occurred days after and in response to the online fury too late?
According to an article in The Washington Post, probably not, as consumers have long put price, convenience and personal taste ahead of outrage. According to the article, “The short lived nature of consumer movements is partly why experts in crisis management often advise executives to placate the public in the short term. And on Tuesday, two days after the 69-year-old passenger’s removal from a flight from Chicago to Louisville, United chief executive Oscar Munoz appeared to do just that.”
In other words, Munoz’s initial words were not in tune with the growing consumer outrage, and after watching the media reports and realizing that, he issued a stronger mea culpa for the incident, saying, finally, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”
The fact is, even within a “perfect” company and in a “perfect” world, incidents are going to happen. That’s why there are crisis communications experts in the first place. The rule of thumb always seems to be: quickly own the problem, apologize and vow to fix it.
But I have to wonder, does this go deeper? It brings to light the ever important role of internal company communications, and how executives can empower employees to make decisions in the workplace. If United had simply kept offering more money for customers to leave the flight, and the United employees on the local level felt empowered to do so, more people may have volunteered and the entire situation could have been avoided.
It’s too soon to know whether last Sunday night’s incident on United Flight 3411 will cause lasting harm. Many travelers will continue to go for the cheapest fare no matter what the carrier, and United frequent fliers likely won’t easily give up their miles. But with a lawsuit from the injured passenger seeming imminent, what could have potentially been solved by a couple of hundred dollars could quickly turn into costing United millions.