The United Airlines incident involving a passenger being dragged off an overbooked flight has drawn a monumental amount of attention and viral social sharing this week. Undeniably disturbing to watch, videos recorded by other passengers show an Asian man being forcibly removed from his seat by a member of airport security, bleeding from his mouth, and being dragged off the airplane after he refused to give up his seat for off-duty crew members on a full flight.
To make matters worse, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, botched his initial statement – only apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers” – and didn’t offer any admission of wrongdoing until several days after the incident.
The cliche cannot be avoided – this was truly a PR nightmare. United’s stock tanked, people called for boycotts, and social media backlash was overwhelming (and frankly, still is). However, United could have responded differently to the crisis and likely averted the severity of current outcomes.
Namely, Munoz, along with his leadership and crisis communications team, should have concluded much earlier that the passenger in question should never have been treated in such a manner and the company should have offered an apology immediately. Regardless of the person’s resistance to get off the flight, or the details surrounding their personal or professional background, resorting to violence is not something any brand wants on their record.
While Munoz’s subsequent statement was much more appropriate, apologetic in nature, and included an announcement of an internal investigation into the incident, it was much too late. Companies must quickly take stock of the situation when crises strike and be prepared to act swiftly – including taking responsibility for their actions and announcing plans to investigate further. It’s important to note that this move doesn’t absolve other parties involved from their role (the passenger should have complied with verbal requests to leave the plane), but it clearly communicates a brand’s intent to conduct itself with professionalism and respect. This approach goes a long way to earn back the public’s trust and respect, not to mention re-stablilizing the company’s financial footing and overall reputation before excessive damage has been done.