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When things fly south: Lessons learned from United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz’s PR blunder

Posted by Denise M. Reagan on Apr 14, 2017 09:27 AM

It took one, two, three, four attempts at an apology before United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz seemed to hit the right note.

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Original art by Eduardo Sarmiento.

Public outrage continues to surround Muñoz’s response to videos of passenger Dr. David Dao being dragged off a plane in Chicago. He and three other passengers were involuntarily bumped from the flight when four United employees needed transport to Louisville for a later flight. Three of the passengers accepted United’s voucher for future travel; Dao did not.

The third admission came as United Airlines’ stock was facing a steep decline on the stock market. There’s nothing like staring down the barrel of a shotgun to bring out the sincerity. Not to mention that $500,000 of Muñoz’s bonus is tied to customer satisfaction surveys, which doesn’t look too promising in the near future.

On Wednesday, he sat down for an interview with ABC News and vowed, "This will never happen again.”

Then, he canceled a planned speech Thursday at the World Affairs Council in Jacksonville, Florida, missing a golden opportunity to get in front of the story while in front of a friendly audience in his old stomping grounds.

But let’s back up a minute. United Airlines’ public relations department never should have let this happen. Muñoz’s cautionary tale provides many teachable moments.

Get the facts first: Did Muñoz have the full picture when he made his first apology on Twitter—or when some PR person make that statement for him? On Monday, he was quoted on the airline’s Twitter account: “This is an upsetting incident for all of us at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.” Had he seen the video? Did he talk to anyone directly involved? Don’t speak until you know the full scope of the situation.

The flight left Chicago at 7:21 p.m. and arrived in Louisville at 9:01 p.m. on Sunday evening. Muñoz’s first statement came out at 11:27 a.m. Monday. That should have been enough time to gather the facts and prepare a thoughtful statement.

Don’t use jargon: A term like “re-accommodate” stinks of PR-speak. Use plain language that addresses the real issue. This was a horrific video of a disturbing incident. The response of bystanders in the video should tell you everything you need to know.

Be sincere: Customers and potential customers immediately smell a phony, hypocritical, or evasive tone. It’s even worse if the apology seems driven by stock prices falling off a cliff.

Take personal responsibility: You can’t get past the blunder without accepting fault. Make it clear that the buck stops with you.

Pay now or pay later: In the PR world, this is particularly true. What amount could United Airlines have offered a passenger—not specifically Dao—to give up a seat? Would $2,000 or $3,000 be worth it to avoid an international incident played out on social media? It’s much cheaper than the settlement United is sure to negotiate with Dao.

Use common sense: Empower your frontline folks with the tools they need to make decisions, such as increasing the amount of the vouchers offered to passengers. Those who study game theory have suggested that the way these negotiations to relinquish seats are done—in public—are not productive, suggesting that offers sent to passengers by text might be more effective. They also say starting at a high-dollar amount then scaling down to a lower price point helps clarify which passengers are willing to give up their seats.

Be aware of racial overtones: You simply cannot remove race or ethnicity from the equation in these situations. The story blew up in China with calls to boycott United Airlines; some had mistakenly identified the Vietnamese doctor as Chinese. Thoroughly check your systems to ensure they do not treat genders, races, or ethnicities differently.

Don’t blame the victim: This should go without saying, but perhaps we all need reminding. Muñoz’s initial reaction to the incident placed the blame on Dao. In an email to employees on Monday, he described the Dao as “disruptive and belligerent” and said “he continued to resist—running back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials.” Later in the news cycle, stories bubbled up that brought up Dao’s past legal issues. There is no upside to this tactic.

Get in front of the story: Muñoz lost an opportune moment to speak to a sympathetic, hometown audience in Jacksonville. Muñoz joined CSX Corporation in 2003 and became president in 2015. He might never find a more forgiving crowd. He could have worked closely with a great speechwriter to attack his issues head on for his planned topic, “The Changing Global Dynamic of Commercial Aviation”—even if these weren’t the kinds of changes he was planning to address. Afterward, he could have answered a few questions. He lost the chance to take control of the story and shape the narrative.