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PR Lessons from United's Viral Video Nightmare

Reputation matters.

If you thought the now-viral video of security personnel dragging off a passenger who was involuntarily bumped from his United Airlines flight would be a one-and-done, think again.

The outrage, particularly on social media, was swift and understandable. It struck a raw nerve on many fronts – crowded flights, forcible removal, bloodied passenger – and all to make room for crew members over paying passengers (though the practice of bumping paying passengers for crew members needed to operate flights down the line is common and in fact a federal requirement to avoid delays).

As a result of the video, United’s stock fell 1% a day after the video emerged – and it was worse during the trading day.

My first reaction when I saw the video was that I’m thankful we didn’t have to worry about Twitter when I was in airline public relations. We had time to understand what happened and prepare a response.

Now, with mobile technology, anyone can broadcast to the world – without context – about what’s happening on board. Anybody could sink your reputation at the speed of a click, tap or swipe.

A situation like this requires immense speed to respond – otherwise, your message is lost to the denizens of social media, who act on emotion without often learning the full story, including what led up to the confrontation.

For example, while involuntarily bumping a passenger is legal, what led to the violence? Did he say something? It doesn’t make it right but there’s always another side to the story that gets overlooked in a viral video.

In this case, the story was bigger than it would have been without video. The powerful optics shape perceptions so much and so fast that there’s no time to lose when responding.

How could United have done better?

  • The initial apologies fell flat. United CEO Oscar Munoz needed to immediately apologize. We instead saw a response lacking any empathy, a corporate-ese non-apology “for having to re-accommodate these customers.”
  • The initial responses did not acknowledge the violence, humiliation and discomfort for the victim and other passengers. Had United shown compassion and intent to make things right from the get-go, it would have appeared as an airline that at least cares.
  • Sort it out before pulling off passengers. My airline days also taught me to hash out issues away from passengers. A further delay or enticing passengers with the maximum amount to take a later flight would have been a fraction of the monetary hit to the brand.

A day after the bumbled apology, Munoz did issue a more forthcoming one that I think hits the mark:

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.  



So, what now for United?

  • Contact every passenger on that aircraft to personally apologize. Nothing less will do.
  • Publicly apologize as much as possible – that you’ve screwed up and here’s what you’re going to do about it.
  • Communicate to all United customers. With a boycott under way, United must reach out to its customers regularly to assure them this will not happen again.
  • Review procedures and fix operations to ensure this was, in fact, an isolated event. Then tell the world what you’ve done to rectify this.

And what are the lessons for businesses and organizations that are one tweet or post away from a PR nightmare?

  • Have a crisis communications plan. While you can’t anticipate everything that goes wrong, you can at least know what you need to do to respond to negative news.
  • Messaging matters. While any large airline deals with issues daily, in this case the usual responses initially didn’t have enough warm-and-fuzzies to take seriously.
  • Fess up. When appropriate, apologize. It can be done without offending the lawyers.
  • Communicate what you’re doing to fix the problem. Say what you’ve learned, the changes you’ve made and the safeguards you’re putting in place to ensure a negative issue won’t happen again.

And while the United brand has taken a hit, this too shall pass, although I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this in terms of lawsuits and media stories.

Just in time for the summer flying peak season.

If you find yourself in the middle of a social media firestorm, NDP's crisis communication experts can help navigate the turbulence. Contact us at info@ndp.agency.

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