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Death from Bad PR? How United Airlines’ Path to Reputation Ruin Can Be Turned Around

Ryan McCormickBy Ryan McCormick, Co-Founder of Goldman McCormick PR

The tsunami of negative press United Airlines has been experiencing in the past month is causing short & long-term damage to its reputation and brand. The company may continue to make money now—but the future is anything but hopeful. Can bad PR destroy a business? Yes.

Here are three things have been toxic to United Airlines.

1. Passenger David Dao’s violent removal from a United Airlines flight

The shocking video will never go away and it will continue to be viewed. When Mr. Dao files a lawsuit against UA, we can expect the media to replay this clip (which effectively killed all believably & credibility of UA’s “Come Fly The Friendly Skies” tagline).

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz and his team did not respond to this situation aggressively and Munoz’s apology wasn’t remotely sincere. The internal email which had him praising staff for handling Mr. Dao while externally presenting a different face was a credibility catastrophe for Mr. Munoz & United Airlines.

2. UA receives the lowest domestic airline raking in 2017 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI).

Terrible news but, did Mr. Munoz and his team issue an impassioned press statement pledging to do better? I didn’t see one. By being silent here, the negative attention on this story has reached its full potential for reputation ruin.

3. Last week’s report of United Airlines being number one in animal deaths.

MarketWatch noted that in 2016 the airline had the most reported animal deaths when compared to its peers. This report is likely causing many people who love their pets to think “What is if that was my fur-baby?” Animal mistreatment of any kind can quickly elicit an emotional provocation and mobilization of people to take immediate action to end it. Don’t be surprised if PETA starts protesting UA tomorrow.

United Airlines doesn’t have to stay on the path to reputation ruin. They can take some actions to reverse their course though nothing is guaranteed. Here are a few of our suggestions:

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz has to go

Munoz may be incredibly skilled and his overall tenure may have been financially healthy for UA however, he needs to be removed. Between Munoz’s tone deaf responses to three toxic events previously mentioned and the fact that they’ve all happened on his watch means that Munoz has become an albatross to UA’s reputation.

Purge Employees with poor behavioral histories 

Any UA employee that deals with the public should be courteous, patient, and respectful. Employees who deal with the public that have had questionable behavioral issues in the past should either be immediately terminated or transferred to a division that doesn’t engage the public.

United Airlines should hire a new PR Team

There are many respectable public relations agencies that have the talent, passion, and enthusiasm to take on the task of rebuilding UA’s reputation. They need a fresh perspective.

Customer service needs to be top priority 

If UA re-trains their employees to treat each customer like gold (waive certain fees, be extra polite) it can go along way. It would be wise for UA to meet with and learn from the Marriott Corporation which are the leading innovators of excellent service.

New United Airlines contract with customers 

Have UA’s new CEO issue a list of ten new commitments of the how the airline will treat customers going forward. Put this list of new commitments on every airline seat.

Albert Einstein once said “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” This is the PR crossroads where United Airlines currently stands.

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