PR 101: United Airlines’ lessons in how not to manage a crisis

From a rolling start at the end of a runway, passenger aircraft reach their cruising altitude within 10 or 15 minutes. Earlier this week, that’s how long it took for United Airlines to transform an everyday problem into a major corporate crisis. It’s hard to think of a case study that went so compellingly wrong so rapidly.

Thanks to multiple cellphone videos that captured a needless confrontation between a passenger and aviation police on board United Flight 3411, this is a global story that continues to gain attention even with the emerging geopolitical confrontations over Syria and North Korea.

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Corporations, government officials, university leaders, media outlets and sports leagues make mistakes all the time. Whether they experience a public relations problem or a major crisis depends on how they respond.

 

Specifically, how did they define their crisis? What did they say about it? Were their actions consistent with their strategic narrative? Did their reaction make the situation better or worse? What do they need to do to recover and how long will it take?

My students at George Washington University review PR nightmares all of the time— WikiLeaks, North Korea and Sony Pictures Entertainment, the University of Virginia and Rolling Stone Magazine, Penn State University and the Sandusky scandal, and more recently James Comey and the Clinton emails — that have achieved generational notoriety. Even for international students who are more familiar with FIFA than the NFL, bring up Deflategate and they know exactly what it’s about.

For the foreseeable future, mention United Airlines and the reaction will be instantaneous  — what were they thinking? That’s a good question. While every crisis is different, this one presents a good checklist of what not to do.

First of all, the crisis was easily avoidable. The airline had four employees who needed to travel from Chicago to Louisville; overbooking happens routinely.

United’s customer service personnel offered vouchers, first for $400 and then $800, as an incentive to find four volunteers to give up their seats. They should have continued to offer higher values until they solved the problem. By haggling over hundreds of dollars, they placed United’s billion dollar brand in jeopardy.

Instead, they arbitrarily selected four passengers who would be involuntarily bumped. Had they identified the non-volunteers while still in the terminal area, explained why they were selected, and offered compensation including flights, rooms and meals, they would have lost four customers but maintained their global goodwill.

But inexplicably, United began the boarding process, allowing the non-volunteers to board the aircraft. This fundamentally changed the dynamic of the situation. United’s relationship with its customers turned from cooperation to confrontation.

In crisis management and communication, control is essential. But as United’s problems compounded, it turned resolution of the evolving situation over to local law enforcement.

No one game-planned how the problem was going to play out on board the aircraft. A United customer who had purchased a ride home was harmed instead. The friendly skies turned hostile. United’s multimillion dollar investment in corporate advertising evaporated in an instant.

As the officers wrestled with the stunned passenger and literally dragged him off the airplane, they seemed unaware of the many cellphones that were recording their every move and unconcerned about how the confrontation appeared to the live audience — the shocked passengers — and the flying public — the rest of us.

In this social media age, this is an incredible blind spot. Nothing stays in Vegas anymore.

In the aftermath, corporate spokespeople resorted to an overly legalistic response — airline employees followed proper procedures, as if a bloodied passenger being dragged off an airplane was a desirable outcome.

They blamed the victim — he was asked politely to relinquish his seat before force was used.

Rather than quickly acknowledging mistakes and working aggressively to limit the damage, United hid behind an ongoing internal and law enforcement investigation.

Passengers and aviation experts, not United itself, defined what happened. United’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, called the incident upsetting, but only apologized for “the overbook situation.”

The response fell well short of what was needed.

Congressional hearings are inevitable. Before coming to Washington, Munoz needs to take ownership of United’s crisis.

A good starting point is a more heartfelt apology. The passengers on Flight 3411 did nothing wrong. Their rights were violated.

When he confronts justifiably angry members of Congress, he needs to acknowledge that responsibility flows from top to bottom, not the other way around. This was not a case of bad apples or over-aggressive policing. United placed the imperatives of the company ahead of the interests of their customers.

If he fails to acknowledge United’s many mistakes, it’s not going to go well. And the airline’s crisis will go from bad to worse. Just ask Wells Fargo.

P.J. Crowley is a professor of practice at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs and the author of Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States. He’s written for Politico, The Daily Beast, and the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @pjcrowley.


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