It is hard to imagine that a consumer brand as strong as United Airlines would find itself in a position where a brief jaw-dropping video would crush the company’s image. David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American doctor, was hospitalized after Chicago aviation police dragged him from the plane to make space for four crew members on the flight from the city’s O’Hare International Airport to Louisville, Kentucky.
Adding fuel to fire was CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial response that lacked empathy for the passenger’s painful injuries and failed to understand the impact of the viral video.
Even after an employee leaked an internal memo to the press that tossed another log onto the inferno, it was days later before the company would issue a meaningful response.
In addition, passengers have rated “getting bumped” from overbooked flights among the top criticisms of the airline industry (right next to late arrivals/departures). Regulators and elected officials are also using this incident to call for industry-wide changes.
In most commercial airline mishaps, aviation experts say there was usually a long chain of events and errors that lead to the devastating crash – not just one. It might explain what happened to United before, during and after this incident.
United has capable corporate communications, social media and branding marketing teams consisting of some of the most respected professionals in the industry. Last month, Munoz even was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by PRWeek magazine. You must believe that these public relations experts wouldn’t just stand idly by while this viral video circulated like wildfire and negative conversations on social media spiked.
interestingly, there have been several recent stories about passengers who received “rough” or unfavorable treatment by United employees during the past few weeks. For example, two women wearing leggings were barred from boarding in Chicago (same airport).
Here are a few thoughts:
- United might want to revamp its overbooking policies.
- There might be an ongoing customer service issue, especially at the Chicago airport.
- Employees might not have followed the procedures for handling passengers who insist on not being bumped.
- The security team might have used excessive force and needs to be retrained.
- United might not have had guidelines for mitigating situations like this – responding to passenger videos that damage the company’s brand.
- A breakdown in the communications team might have led to the CEO issuing non-apology statements.
- United’s legal counsel might have advised the CEO to approach the situation with too much caution.
- United failed to remember that all employee communications could be leaked to the public and the press. These documents must be drafted with this in mind.
- United must remember that it is the passenger who owns and controls the brand.
- Social media can compound any crisis situation. In addition to spreading negative news, users nowadays will poke fun at a situation with memes and trending hashtags, further extending the crisis.
Look for United to launch an extensive re-branding campaign focused on the consumer (passenger) to reclaim its “Friendly Skies” status.