United Airlines is still reeling from a public relations catastrophe. On an overbooked Sunday flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, it needed to make room for four airline employees. No passenger volunteered, so the airline decided to pick passengers to disembark.
One of the passengers, who said he was a doctor who needed to be back at work the following day, refused to comply. The airline ordered police officers from O’Hare Airport to remove him. Three agents pulled the man from his seat and dragged him through the aisle all the way out, in footage captured by a passenger, Jayse Anspach, in his mobile phone.
The evicted passenger then can be seen returning to the plane, standing with a bloodied face. He is very visibly distressed, repeating: “Just kill me, just kill me.”
It would make any customer think twice before booking with such an airline. The violence employed by the police officers is extremely disturbing, to the point that other passengers expressed their shock as the incident was unfolding. That the passenger was Asian-American —of Vietnamese origin, according to media reports, who has been living in the United States for two decades— compounded matters. It exposed United Airlines to accusations of racism. His initial misidentification as Chinese created a backlash against the carrier in social media in China.
Ironically, barely a month ago PRWeek named United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz as 2017 “US Communicator of the Year.” To understand this public relations disaster let’s take a leaf from established PR guidelines.
In crisis situations, it is always important to look into the root cause of the incident. Ideally, this should be done before a crisis erupts. In this case, it appears that United overrode customers’ interests to pursue its operational concerns. Even worse, it used law enforcement put at its service for everybody’s safety against its own customer.
While looking for root causes of PR crisis may seem a little too idealized, it is obvious how ignoring the guideline voids public relations of all meaning. Social media —a voluble force companies are still learning to cope with— has been feasting on United’s statement about “re-accommodating” the passenger. Muñoz’s second statement made it worse, when he described the incident as “upsetting”, as if he was one more passenger. PR books warn that corporate leaders may tend to dismiss crises and resist acting until they blow out of all proportion. Their PR strategy should be planned well in advance, prompting the company into action.
Both initial statements by United expose the root problem the airline tried to ignore. There is always little time to respond in a crisis. Yet United should know better by now. It had a terrible reputation that Mr. Muñoz had been trying to turn around. And only last month it had made a woman disembark for wearing leggings. While there was a technicality in this latter case that explained United’s decision, it still prompted outrage. The company doesn’t get that they can’t sweep their problems under the wing. To passengers, the message seems to be: fly with United at your own risk.