For United Airlines, storm clouds are brewing and there are no signs of clear skies ahead. The company is facing tremendous backlash from the now viral video of a passenger being forcibly dragged off an overbooked flight. Other companies, large and small, should take this as a cautionary tale of just how easy it is for a minor problem to turn into a major corporate crisis—one that could have been manageable, if not avoidable, with a little preparation.
Corporate communications staffers cross the world have been asking themselves one simple question, where did United go wrong and how can I prevent my brand from making the same mistakes? The answer is simple, call The Herald Group today…but on a more serious note, do not wait for a crisis to happen to think about your crisis communications plan. By thinking ahead and creating a strategic plan using specific crisis communications tactics, brands and organizations can manage any situation and protect their corporate reputation, reassuring customers and stakeholders of their commitment to company values.
Although no one at United could have anticipated this particular incident or how quickly this situation would spiral out of control, it was clear from their response that United had not taken the appropriate steps to prepare for a crisis and limit potential reputation damage.
In a crisis, leaders are looked to for stability and strength. United provided neither. United’s initial problem of a passenger being forcibly removed from a flight was made worse by non-apologies, which addressed only the issue of overbooking, not the safety concerns of their customers. This weak justification for the incident was immediately seen as an attempt to hide behind the company’s rulebook and avoid future litigation. This ill prepared narrative that did not address the actual issue at hand put United on the defensive—a horrible place for a company. Enter a series of incoherent and sloppy responses from seemingly ill-prepared spokespeople that sent the world into a tailspin of outrage.
United also seemed unable to see the forest for the trees. Their refusal to accept this was a bad situation, take responsibility, and move on, only added more fuel to the fire. Instead of looking at the bigger picture of overall brand reputation, they held on to false hope that the story would pass, and even released an internal memo defending the actions of the flight crew.
Even if United executives believed the flight crew was in the right, the court of public opinion had already decided they, and United, were in the wrong. Defending the obviously ridiculous actions of the flight crew only created more backlash and allowed angry passengers and the social media peanut gallery to take control of the narrative, creating a complete PR nightmare. United should have immediately renounced the actions of these rouge employees and made a commitment to retrain all flight attendants in proper customer service protocols—accepting responsibility and moving on.
It was clear from the beginning that United did not have a strategic crisis communications plan in place. At the very least, they should have done a few things: media train their leadership, designate a crisis team of key stakeholders to consolidate decision making during the crisis, and prepare to accept responsibility for the worst. With these simple steps, United could have saved themselves millions and protected their brand reputation.