United Airlines: How NOT to Manage a PR Crisis

Everyone has experienced the annoyance – if you’re making an event or on a tight travel schedule — or the thrill – if you’re a flexible traveler – of being booked on an overbooked flight.

But on Sunday, a United flight out of Chicago took the run-of-the-mill experience to a bizarre, horrifying sky-high. When an unidentified passenger refused to deplane, after  reportedly having been asked several times, police used brute force to evacuate him from the plane. The security officer physically removed the passenger – a doctor who insisted he needed to get home to his patients – from his seat and dragged him off of the flight, hurting him in the process.  Fellow flyers captured the horrific scene on their cell phones and quickly took to social media to broadcast the moment.

In an initial statement on Monday afternoon, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz apologized “for having to re-accommodate these customers.” Re-accommodate? Many, us included, found the use of this word to be flippant and euphemistic.

Moving on in the story… in a second statement, Munoz then decided to insult the passenger himself, describing him as “disruptive and belligerent.”

He finally sort of got it right by releasing a statement on Tuesday afternoon, wherein he pledged to release a full review of the incident and overall overbooking policy by April 30th.

Ironically, Munoz’s PR crisis news comes on the heels of his receiving the honor of PR Week’s “Communicator of the Year” less than a month ago!

Firstly, the heart of the issue is that the airlines must enact a better system in assessing and incentivizing the passengers they must “re-accommodate.” If better foundations for these onboarding policies would have been in place, Munoz and United never would have found themselves in this predicament to begin with.

Munoz messed up repeatedly – he downplayed and then even worse, played the blame game. United should have moved much more quickly to limit backlash from the incident and corresponding video, and Munoz could have done that in issuing a more heartfelt response from the get-go. When we fly, we are literally trusting the airline with our lives – and Munoz should remember that.

Go Back to All Posts