It’s the video that has been seen around the world and the uproar has been resounding. Twitter, Kimmel and even Merriam-Webster have quickly helped evolve the recent forcible removal of a man – a doctor, who was injured in the incident – from an United Airlines (United) flight into a PR nightmare for the airline. However – plot twist – it turns out the video isn’t the only problem currently facing United.
Response post-event from an organization is required, but its tone can make or break the ongoing optics of an organization. For United, the response made this situation worse. When a CBS News employee tweeted @United asking for an initial response, this is what he got from the official airline handle:
We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities. ^RD
— United Airlines (@united) April 10, 2017
The overbook situation gets the apology. Not the doctor dragged off a plane or the horrified onlookers, the overbook situation. To make matters worse, a passive response from United CEO Oscar Munoz followed hours later.
Here is the full statement from Munoz:
“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
This time, the apology doesn’t go to the overbook situation – but it doesn’t go to the injured passenger either – instead, Munoz apologizes for having to “re-accommodate these customers.” And, he notes, they are reaching out to the passenger to “further address and resolve this situation.”
When it comes to a crisis or management of an issue, there are situations that deem prudent to not show remorse or take responsibility, but this is not one of those times. Especially as this was on the heels of a recent leggings crisis, and your company’s established goal is making “every flight a positive experience” for customers.
Regardless of whether or not the airline has certain policies in place for when they need to “re-accommodate” customers, the initial statement should have been directed towards the man who likely didn’t feel like it was a simple re-accommodation. Additionally, how responsive will this passenger likely be to United’s efforts to “address and resolve the situation”?
The response does not have to include acceptance of fault, but having the CEO display genuine feelings of contrition, as well as a note that they are reevaluating their procedures for future incidents, would have lessened the blow currently aimed at United.
Finally, another day after the initial responses were released from United, Munoz put out another statement, this one more heartfelt and actually directed to the injured passenger seen on the video.
Is it possible to come back from a bad post-event response? Yes, but it will take time, major costs to reputation and a concerted marketing effort to win back now disillusioned, and possibly former, customers. In the grand scheme of things, it is much easier to show that the heart of your company actually beats, rather than flat-lining with a sterile response.