Crisis management case study: United Airlines

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In March 2017 United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was named U.S. Communicator of the Year by the magazine PR Week. Just one month later, his company’s poor response to a customer incident has turned into a PR disaster, caused its stock to dramatically drop $1bn in value and has placed the entire airline industry under the microscope. Joanna Delaney, Digital Strategy Analyst at Digital Strategy Consulting group, looks at how the situation escalated, explaining how through the power of social media an isolated incident turned into a global PR disaster overnight.

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On Sunday 9th April security officials dragged paying passenger Dr David Dao off United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. As a result of his rough treatment, Dr Dao was hospitalised; and thanks to the multiple smartphone videos that captured the confrontation between Dr Dao and the security officials, the incident has escalated into a global PR disaster for United Airlines.

WARNING: Video below contains upsetting scenes

United Airlines response to the situation amplified the incident

Companies, governments, media outlets etc. make mistakes all the time; whether they experience a PR disaster depends on how they respond.

The first official response from United Airlines CEO should have offered an unreserved apology to Dr Dao and his wife after he was forcibly removed from his seat and dragged down the aircraft aisle. Instead Oscar Munoz failed to acknowledge the injuries Dr Dao suffered, apologising only for having to “re-accommodate customers”

On top of this insensitive response an internal email from Munoz to United Airlines staff which was leaked described the passenger as "disruptive and belligerent." and said that "employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”

This lack of empathy in United Airlines response added fuel to the fire and caused another wave of backlash towards the company on social media.

It wasn’t until the following Tuesday that Munoz apologised for the forcible removal of Dr Dao, calling the incident “truly horrific” and offered his “deepest apologies for what happened”. Munoz also said in the statement “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right, I promise you we will do better”.

By the time the second official response from the CEO was released, United were continuing to struggle to contain the fallout from the incident. #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos was trending with users Tweeting memes and slogans such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating”.

United Airlines should have moved much more quickly to limit damage from the video. This fiasco demonstrates the importance of a company’s first response and how it is delivered.

Underestimated the power of social media

This incident highlights the power of social media, and how one isolated incident can become a global PR disaster overnight. The days of a company getting away with such incidents are gone due to the smartphone and any incident has the potential to be seen by many, something companies need to be aware of.

It’s safe to assume that almost every passenger on Flight 3411 had a smartphone and that most had a social media account, this means that in real time multiple passengers were able to film the incident and post it publically for the world to see, and before the plane touched down in Louisville the incident had been viewed by people all over the world. Not only was it seen by so many, once the videos are on social media they are permanently memorialised on there, and United Airlines has no control or ability to take them down.

The nature of the incident is what led to it going viral on social media. As news consumers we see daily visual displays in both video and photos of unfairness in the world, but Dr Dao has the distinction — he could have been any one of us.

One moment of bad customer service and the whole airline industry is under a microscope
The practice of “bumping” on an aircraft is common practice among all airlines, and is a key part of how the industry runs. There are always people who are late for a flight and therefore to ensure there are minimal empty seats, airlines often overbook flights. If there are more passengers than available seats the airline offers flight credit in exchange for being inconvenienced to take the next flight. In the case of Flight 3411, United needed to “bump” four passengers to get four crew members to Louisville to fly a crewless plane. Inconveniencing four passengers on one flight is better than cancelling a flight and inconveniencing over 200 passengers. United offered the four passengers (one of which was Dr Dao) $1000 in flight credit – airline staff could of offered up to $1300 but chose not to. Dr Dao refused to give up his seat and instead of bumping another passenger, Dr Dao was forcibly removed from the aircraft.

Customers have long known about the practice of bumping, but never before have the exact details of how passengers are chosen to be bumped and the procedure of offering different amounts of incentives been such public knowledge. After this incident customers will now know if they wait longer the airline will offer more money to bump them. On top of this Canada is looking to introduce legislation to address airline bumping and create an airline passenger bill of rights, which will affect all airlines flying to Canada.


United Airlines future in Asian markets

The video of the incident attracted huge attention in China, which is a key growth market for United Airlines. Dr Dao’s claim that he was targeted for removal because he is Asian will likely adversely affect United’s business in Asia as many future passengers will probably have seen the video.

A company in the spotlight

Things continue to get worse for United Airlines, one month after the incident a giant rabbit died on United Airlines flight from London to Chicago. An incident like this would not normally make international news but while the world is watching every move United Airlines makes any incident or mistake is shown to the world.

Crisis management tips

• Respond quickly to customer incidents, apologising directly to the impacted people. The companies response must show empathy
• Get the facts straight so that as a company you are fully aware of every detail of the situation
• Be transparent with the media
• Own your response. If the company made a mistake, own it, apologise for it and put in place the necessary procedures so it does not happen again

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