The United fiasco – what it teaches organisations about crisis communications management

Just when you thought that companies had finally learnt about how to deal with a crisis United Airlines shows that it’s still possible to handle a difficult issue appallingly badly.

We’re not going to pile on any more agony but looking at what United Airlines has and not done can certainly be instructive for organisations who want to make sure that their crisis communications strategy is as good as it could be.

We do a lot of crisis communications training for hotels, travel companies and airlines and we put their press offices and PR companies through their paces and help their spokespeople to find the words that they need in order to communicate effectively and to express concern in a way that rings true.

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United Airlines crisis: the unfriendly skies?

So what have United Airlines done in this truly awful case – and, more importantly what should they have done?

  1. They should have taken action right away.

It took at least 24 hours for Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines to react and then he decided to write to his staff rather than address the public. Of course staff are important in a crisis situation but the external audience requires attention first and foremost. In any case, whatever is released to the public will be noticed by staff as well.

What you should do: Act quickly. We used to talk about the “golden hour,” for crisis communication. Now in these days of smartphones and social media it’s really a case of a “golden ten minutes.”

  1. The apology isn’t clear and unreserved.

Apparently Oscar Munoz “deeply regrets this situation arose.” I’m sure he does “regret,” that video footage of a screaming and bloodied passenger being dragged off the overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville as fellow passengers express their horror has been made public.

But is he saying sorry? It’s not clear. One of the most important rules of the crisis communication is to apologise completely, unreservedly and quickly if you have done something wrong.   Even if you’re not obviously to blame expressing sympathy and concern is essential. Very often advisors will suggest that the spokesperson or company leadership hold off, especially because of legal concerns. However, expressing sympathy doesn’t mean accepting blame. Mr Munoz then apologised in full – see below.

What you should do: Apologise or at least sympathise immediately and fully.

  1. Mr Munoz uses corporate language.

When he finally does apologise, he talks about “having to re-accommodate these customers,” and promise that his team will be “reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

They will also be “moving with a sense of urgency.” Doesn’t that mean: “working as fast as we can”? “This passenger,” is David Dao, a human being who has a name, one that has now been released to the public. What’s this about: “further address and resolve this situation”? Who really speaks like that?

What you should do: Use natural, everyday language. More importantly, practice and rehearse with your senior spokespeople so that they can find the words and phrases that work for them. There’s nothing worse than an apology or a crisis update in which the spokesperson parrots what is clearly another person’s wording.

  1. Don’t issue a statement alone.

Of course, it’s safer to put something in writing but a statement issued on its own looks cold, inhuman and uncaring. Alongside this United, and any other organisation caught in such a difficult situation needs to arrange for a human being to make a statement and to do interviews.

This might not be the Chief Executive all managing director. It could be that another very senior person from the business is more appropriate, either because of their job specification or simply because of their manner. Obviously this person needs to be well trained and their interviews must be carefully managed.

What you should do: Get a human being to speak on your behalf, either in a statement to reporters or with individual interviews that have been careful managed.

  1. United doesn’t seem to have coordinated its actions properly with other parties.

In fact, it was Chicago Aviation Security Officers who ejected Mr Dao from his seat. They worked closely with United on this occasion but in the fall out, there seems to be no coordination. Instead of ensuring that their messages support each other and they present a united front (sorry about the pun) the two organisations seem to be speak unilaterally.

What you should do: Get in touch with every other organisation that might be affected. If it’s a serious incident then the police and the emergency services will take charge anyway but if you have to recall a product, for instance, liaising with the supplier and even the haulier is very important. This will mean that you’re message is coordinated and that a sneaky journalist won’t be able to trick someone into saying something embarrassing.

  1. Be consistent with your message.

First United didn’t apologise and merely defended the actions of its staff. Then Oscar Munoz said simply: “I’m sorry. We will fix this.” Finally, (or is it? We’ll wait and see) then he offered a more comprehensive apology describing the incident as “horrific,” and admitting that he continues to be “ deeply disturbed by what happened on this flight.” Three statements in 36 hours that have different messages and a variety of tones isn’t good crisis communications management.

What you should do: It’s essential to offer regular updates to the media about an unfolding situation but these bulletins should always be consistent and you should never say anything that you might be forced to recount or withdraw.

Just one final thought. Last month Mr Munoz received a ‘communicator of the year’ award from industry publication PRWeek. Is that trophy still on display in his office? It just goes to show that crisis management, as is the case with any other skill requires constant practice. That means reviewing the plan on a regular basis and getting your spokespeople to practice their procedures and their crisis interview techniques.

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Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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