How the United fiasco made PR rethink its ways

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About a month ago, a United Airlines passenger was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight by airport security. After videos of David Dao being dragged across the airplane floor surfaced online, all hell broke loose on social media, causing a PR crisis for United Airlines. Initially, United abided by the forceful removal of the passenger but later issued an apology, with Oscar Munoz, the company’s CEO apologizing for the overbooking situation. After receiving mostly negative feedback and boycott threats, United issued yet another apology, one they should’ve made immediately after the incident happened:

We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.

Since they’ve made a crucial mistake of not owning up to what they did at the very beginning, it was a bit too late to make amends with their customers and the angry public; it was pretty obvious that the second statement was an attempt at damage control. As a result, United’s consumer perception dropped to a ten-year low.

One of the crucial mistakes United Airlines made while dealing with a crisis like this one was not standing by its core values. Some of them as stated on their web page are: “Warm and welcoming is who we are”; “We make decisions with facts and empathy”; “We earn trust by doing things the right way”. Yet, this is exactly what we couldn’t see in their very first apology letter. Their actions were completely inconsistent with their stated values and it made people wonder if they made them up just for marketing and PR.

Several questions arise when something like this happens. How should one deal with a PR crisis? What to do when your company’s being dragged on the Internet and you’re getting bad press? Is all press actually good press? As seen here, how a company reacts to bad press might be more important than the initial mistake itself. In order to repair the damage that’s been done, companies need to strategically react to whatever the media throws at them. In order words, preparation is key before dealing with the press. Researching before answering delicate questions, following up with media and preparing what you’re going to say are the most important aspects of image recovery. Telling the truth, remaining humble and owning your mistakes might not completely recover your reputation, but it’s what’s going to save you from more negative press.

Tena Tuzla



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