The Aftermath of the United Crisis: Breaking Down the 5 Biggest Lessons Learned

Matt RizzettaBy Matt Rizzetta, CEO, N6A

Spring Break 2017 will be remembered as the week that literally almost “broke” the United brand. While United is still standing a week later, the damages to its brand have been unprecedented. The journey to brand rehabilitation is far from blue skies and auto-pilot. United continues to navigate through dark skies and brand turbulence that it has never before seen, learning painful lessons along the way.

Here are five lessons learned from the United crisis, and ones that other brands can take note of should they find themselves in similar situations in the future.

Timing Does Not Trump Messaging: In this era of real-time responsiveness and breakneck speeds at which companies are required to operate, this incident served as a harsh lesson for United that the message is equally as important as the timing. United’s first action after the incident occurred was to release a statement in rapid response time via Twitter. While normally the expediency would be seen as a plus, this move backfired on United as the messaging was crafted hastily and without collecting all the facts. Their first sign of empathy and contrition toward their customers came 24 hours later when the second statement was released, this time from CEO Oscar Munoz. By the time the masses received the second statement the perception was that United was simply reacting to the outpouring of negative sentiment on social media, and wasn’t displaying a sincere and genuine concern toward their customers. Let this be a lesson for all brands that getting the message right and the timing right are equally as critical in times of crisis.

Don’t Look at the Numbers, They Will Only Make You Cringe: As the United crisis was unfolding in its darkest moments, a member of the media asked me if it would have been more cost effective for United to offer a more robust incentive to the passengers before resorting to forceful removal from the flight. Seriously? Take one look at the outcome—losing thousands of customers, putting the brand loyalty of millions more in jeopardy, and doing immeasurable damage to its brand—and that should answer the question. Essentially anything would have been more cost effective than this. United would have been better off to have offered the dismissed customer a C-level spot on its org chart stacked with private jet access and a fully furnished penthouse overlooking Lake Michigan near its Chicago headquarters and it would have been more cost effective than what actually happened. Bottom line. There are some instances where you analyze the numbers and some instances where it’s better to simply move on. If you’re United, don’t even bother looking at the numbers. They will only make you cringe. Just get better and move on.

Oscar Should Not Go: Through all of the missteps and mistakes that United has made over the past week—and there have been quite a few—it’s easy to forget that, in the end, United is heading in the right direction. While people continue to call for CEO Oscar Munoz’s head, Mr. Munoz is now taking steps to do right by their customers and to ensure a repeat of this incident never happens again. Unfortunately, it took longer than it should have, and there were a handful of cringe worthy missteps along the way, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the outcome United is driving toward is the one that all customers wanted in the first place; an airline experience that is safe, friendly and puts the customer first. While Mr. Munoz needs to learn from this experience and get better as a leader, let’s keep things in perspective. He doesn’t deserve to lose his job.

Implement the ‘Bucket’ Approach for Customer Retention: While United has taken steps in the right direction as of late, let’s not kid ourselves. They continue to have a 747 of a mess on their hands, and have already lost a significant group of customers. In order to stop the bleeding United would be best served to approach its communications strategy into two customer retention buckets. One for customers that are on the “fringe”; i.e. unhappy customers but ones that are still recoverable, and one for customers that are on the “outs”; i.e. severely damaged customers that claim they are never coming back to United. For the “fringe” customers it’s all about quick and swift communication that reinforces United’s core values and shows differentiation from the competition, largely driven by better value and an improved in-flight experience. For the customers that are on the “outs” United needs focus on a long-term strategy that will require a more personalized approach and come to grips with the fact that this bucket can only be rebuilt over time.

United Employees—The Overlooked Audience: There is one audience that continues to get overlooked in this whole mess, but carries equally as much importance in United’s ability to rehabilitate its image than any other audience. Its employees. Thousands of United employees have lost a sense of pride in working for the airline giant as a result of this crisis. Employees who previously felt a synergy between their personal values and the corporate values that their employer stood for now feel disconnected unlike ever before. United cannot lose sight of the fact that their employees are the key to long-term brand rehabilitation. Through town halls, open floor meetings with leadership, corporate value sessions, and other internal communication practices, United will have plenty of opportunities to show their 80,000+ employees that they’re sincere about changing. If they can figure out a way to do this quickly and effectively, their employee base—many of whom are skeptical right now—can be reborn as brand ambassadors, and ultimately serve as United’s greatest ally to the outside world.

  • Madison Denhart

    Mr. Rizzetta,
    Awesome article! My pubic relations class, which lead me to this article, was just discussing crisis communication and United was brought up very frequently. I enjoyed reading this article because it discussed different points that I hadn’t thought of yet, like the employees and how they will effect brand rehabilitation.
    Thank you,

  • Ryann Arguello

    Mr. Rizzetta,

    I really enjoyed this article! Like Madison, I too am in the Pubic Relations class. I was so drawn to this article because we just learned about crisis commutation and the United Airlines situation was discussed. I am interested in crisis communication and I am curious about the stress related to crisis communication and how one is able to recover so quickly from such a tragic situation.
    Thank you for posting,

  • Great piece. Was hoping to read something like this that breaks down the missteps and what the brand would need to fully recover (it that’s at all possible).

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