United Airlines Incident: A PR Case Study on How Not to Handle Crisis!

Monday, 17 April 2017



By S Narendra
(Former adviser to PMs and ex Spokesperson, Govt of India)

A paid passenger of United Airlines was dragged out of his seat to make room for the airline crew. Videos showed the passenger forcibly dragged out of his seat and later running  back to his seat with blood on his face. Videos of the incident went viral.

United Airlines shares soon declined by 7%.And, UA has become the butt of jokes and UA competitors came out with their own take such as this one from South West airlines: ‘We Beat Competition, Not You’.

UA CEO’s  first reaction was to defend the staff action. He went on to describe the passenger, an American citizen and a   doctor of Vietnamese origin as ‘ disruptive’. A statement from UA tried to defend its action as routine with legal sanction. It was claimed that when an airline over-books, it can off load passengers. In US airlines routinely overbook and when required to off load passengers, they ‘incentivise volunteers' by offering sweet deals, 

In the present case, UA allowed passengers to board the aircraft and then decided to off load. Force was used to yank out passengers selected at random for off loading. Normally, off loading takes place at boarding gate before allowing passengers into the aircraft. In this case there was the possibility of inviting racial bias.

UA CEO did not factor this in while issuing his first statement.

After the video went viral, damaging the reputation of UA and inviting share holders’ ire, the airline  came with another statement regretting the incident, but not a full apology. No action was proposed against the concerned staff.

When things went out of control with criticism mounting, the CEO came out with apology (media reported that he refused to resign taking responsibility for the unseemly incident). By then a petition with 150,000 signatures demanding CEO’s resignation had become public.

In a damage control effort, UA announced full refund of  the fares to all passengers on the flight.

In the meanwhile, the passenger who was dragged out of aircraft was  in a hospital and his lawyers had approached a court with a plea  to ensure that all evidence of the incident  be preserved.

Sadly, UA did not come out with a statement how it was compensating the victim for the ill -treatment meted out to him. Nor did the the CEO or some senior UA official go to meet the victim and his family with a wholesome apology and settle the matter privately,

The author
The image and reputation of UA has suffered an irreparable damage. Clearly shows the CEO was not up to the job. His first intervention was a classic case of mismanagement as he did not show concern for cash customers, an airline’s biggest asset. The video showed a bloodied passenger that should have alerted CEO that something more than ordinary , routine off loading' had taken place.
The wholesale refund offer to all passengers showed that UA had messed up but this gesture was a classic case of too-little-too-late.

A bad situation had turned into a first class crisis and reputation mismanagement as the CEO did not steer UA out of the mess but brought upon it a crisis with his unwise first reaction.

The big question that arises now is what were the PR experts engaged by UA doing other than building up a crisis step by step?

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