April 14th, 2017
United Airlines is in the proverbial “hot seat” for the second time in just a month. Last Sunday night, a video showed security officers dragging Doctor David Dao down the aisle of a plane, forcing him off a flight. United’s reputation took a major hit amidst the backlash from the optics of the video, further amplified by the global reach of social media. To make matters worse, United’s market value was severely impacted as it dropped $250 million on Monday. Not a good week.
At first, Dao and his wife had voluntarily offered to give up their seats to make room for four flight crew members who needed to be seated. After Dao had been notified that the next available flight was the following day, Monday at 2:30 PM, he told United it would not work as he needed to get back to his office to take care of patients. Instead of trying to find other passengers who would willingly take the next available flight, security officers forcibly removed Dao from his seat. The more he tried to resist, the more aggressive the officers became.
The disturbing video of the incident went viral and has since put United Airlines under a PR microscope. In attempts to manage the crisis, United placed one of the officers on leave and CEO Oscar Munoz issued multiple apologies.
The key to handling a crisis is to immediately acknowledge and stay in front of the situation. Munoz’s first attempt at an apology focused primarily on the re-accommodation of customers. His second effort might have been even more unfavorable than the first botched endeavor, as Munoz, who coincidentally was named PRWeek U.S. Communicator of the Year, gave an internal announcement to all United staff stating that the man who was dragged off the plane was being “disruptive” and “belligerent.”
It’s safe to say that the public has not yet accepted Munoz’s apologies. Currently pinned to United’s Twitter page is a half-hearted apology by Munoz stating, “We will do better.”
Other airlines are seizing the opportunity to kick United when they are down. Royal Jordanian posted to their twitter, “We would like to remind you that drags on our flights are strictly prohibited by passengers and crew.” There have been a multitude of both memes and videos created to throw shade at United. And revered celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel all used their platform to destroy United.
Despite the PR and social media nightmare that is in full-throttle, United will have to prepare for the legal battle that will take flight next.