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United We Stand, United We Fall: How & Why an Act of Aggression Morphed Into a Full-Blown PR Crisis

United AirlinesBy Neil McLeod, Crisis Management Expert, PHA Media

Two competing narratives are pursued by the media in a crisis creating global headlines. The first is that of the victim’s plight—in the case of the United Airlines crisis, the victim was first known as a bloodied passenger forcibly ejected from his flight. We later discovered his name is Dr David Dao.

The second narrative is the tale of the corporate CEO—PR Week’s Communicator of the Year 2016 and United Airlines top boss Oscar Munoz. His immediate response would have to be perfect. It fell some way short of that.

In almost every story, the public must have someone to blame. The story needs a villain.

There’s an old Irish proverb that states that a good retreat is better than a bad stand. How different might this situation have been had Munoz declared the footage he saw unacceptable and personally overseen the recovery of the situation by visiting the man himself to apologize in person. Instead, United’s first apology regarding the video looked like this:

It was this apology, half-hearted, cold and insensitive, that turned the significant problem United Airlines were facing into a crisis. It was further assisted in this direction by an email that Munoz sent to his employees offering them his full support, meanwhile holding the customer entirely responsible.

What were the problems with the first apologies? An audience that was desperate for something real and tangible received instead corporate speak and disassociation. The entire character of the corporation was on trial and it cast aside the human touch. It refused to accept that something horribly wrong had happened and they needed to say sorry. Something that had been caught on video and was now being distributed worldwide. The customer had “defied” the airline. He was the real villain, Munoz declared.

They say people may forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel. This this video simply made people feel horrified. United Airlines saw a troublesome character holding up a flight. But what did ordinary people see?

For many, air travel is a stressful experience. The sense of powerlessness combined with the growing feeling that the customer is becoming less and less important in the modern-day transaction. The final footage of Dr Dao rocking back and forth while hugging the wall, repeating “I just want to go home” and “just kill me now” was shocking and disturbing.

How could anyone not see this video and immediately be disturbed? They blamed their victim. Incidentally, nearly $1 billion was wiped off United’s value on Tuesday. Any apology that followed this could only be viewed as superficial.

Take United Airline’s reaction in contrast to the response of Richard Branson during the Virgin Galactic crash in 2014 when a pilot tragically died. A victim had lost his life and the rich and powerful CEO’s space ambition was at the heart of it.

As so often happens now, Branson’s first response came not through the media but by Twitter. He praised the “Brave pilots and families of those affected.” Sympathy for the human tragedy became the central message.

Branson’s reaction echoed his response in 2007 to a fatal Virgin train crash in Cumbria. As with the Galactic crash, he flew to the scene immediately. His words and actions in the aftermath were emotional and connected to the human loss. This initial response is what an organisation is judged on and Branson showed both solidarity and support with his employees and customers. In both scenarios, Branson framed those dead as heroes and the mainstream media were more than happy to adopt his empathetic narrative.

A similar response came from Merlin CEO Nick Varney when two trains collided on the rides at Alton Towers. It resulted in multiple injuries including two girls having both their legs amputated in 2015 after being trapped for hours on board. The park was closed, an investigation carried out and a heartfelt statement after the incident was released. Varney declared himself “totally devastated” and that his “heart went out” to the victims. The only priority he said was to those affected.

Varney fronted the media interviews appearing on the BBC and Sky multiple times. He was praised for his response, not least when questioned about how the incident would affect the share price of the company by Sky. “You’ll forgive me if I’m not really focused on the share price at the moment,” he retorted.

Speed of information these days is impossibly fast and the attention span of audience ever shorter—the public may not remember all of the details, but they remember how it made them feel. One overbooking can lead to a crisis capable of engulfing an entire company by failing to appropriate the right response.

Back in 1982, J&J suffered the Tylenol Cyanide-tampering case where consumers of its product died. Their response took over a week before a recall and a public announcement were implemented by then Chairman James Burke. This case is highly regarded in the world of PR as a success story. The brand survived much intact. Yet imagine this lethargy in 2017. A reaction is expected immediately and it cannot be underestimated how important this first response is. It can be the difference between a bad week and a company in crisis.

The United Airlines response feels like it was drafted by lawyers hoping to avoid liability. It was a futile exercise which lost itself in the process.

Given the incident happened in the US, it was inevitable there would be litigation.

Fighting the case is a PR no-go zone for United. Munoz needs to tell his General Counsel and army of lawyers to find a way to settle. He has discovered once that turning the corporate guns on onto a passenger is a no-go strategy.

Whether he would win or lose the case is irrelevant—he has already lost in the court of public opinion.

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