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The Unfriendly Skies

By April 12, 2017 No Comments

Robert Stephens

This week, a textbook case of what not to do in a PR crisis. Your instructor, Oscar Munoz of United Airlines. Read on …

You couldn’t ask for a worse spokesperson than United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. Singlehandedly, he has turned a bad situation into a PR nightmare.

On Sunday evening, a man was forcibly removed from United Airlines Flight 3411 as it was being boarded at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. The flight was full, and the airline needed four seats so that a flight crew could get to Louisville. Kentucky. When no one volunteered, the airline randomly selected four paying customers and ‘bumped’ them from the plane. Three reluctantly complied. The fourth refused, claiming he was a doctor and needed to get home to treat patients on Monday. Security was called.

What ensued was caught on video, and it went viral. The man was yanked from his seat and dragged down the aisle as travelers yelled at the security officers to stop. “Please, my God,” “What are you doing?” “This is wrong,” “Look at what you did to him” they are heard exclaiming.

The man, who appeared to be of Asian descent, was bleeding from his mouth and seemed unconscious. It was a sickening display of violence, and hundreds of millions of people around the world have reacted with shock and outrage.

Since then, Chicago’s aviation department said the security officer who grabbed the passenger had been placed on leave. “The incidence on United Flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned,” the department said in a statement.

And how has United managed the PR crisis? CEO Munoz has neither apologized to the passenger nor admitted any error. In a letter to employees, he vigorously defended the airline’s actions and blamed the passenger for the incident. Stating that the man had become “disruptive and belligerent,” Munoz argued that United was perfectly justified in the way it handled the situation.

“Our agents were left with no choice,” the head honcho explained.

Munoz then stuck another foot in his mouth. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” he tweeted.

Re-accommodate? That’s what he calls brutally evicting a customer from the plane?

Wow. Doesn’t this guy understand even the basics of crisis management?  Apologize, accept responsibility, and fix the problem.  No, instead he pours gasoline on the fire. He positions himself as uncaring and the policies of the airline as dictatorial. The public, of course, becomes even more enraged.

Social media is now abuzz with talk of a boycott. Consumers in China are upset, believing what they are seeing is racial discrimination (United operates more non-stop flights to more cities in China than any other airline).

Munoz and United have been roasted on late night TV. Jimmy Kimmel characterized Munoz’ social post as “sanitized, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate B.S. speak. I don’t know how the guy who sent that tweet didn’t vomit when he typed it up.”

But some of the most biting sarcasm has been at #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos where people have been suggesting, quite brilliantly, new marketing slogans for the airline. Here’s a sampling:

 

United Airlines:

Board as a doctor, leave as a patient.

Now offering both red eye and black eye flights.

We overbooked but you pay the price

We put the hospital in hospitality

We’ll drag you all over the world

Not enough seating, prepare for a beating

Welcome to our new fight club and express checkout service

 

Meet the new Head of Customer Service

Just last month, ironically, Munoz was named Communicator of the Year by PRWeek . A company news release said he won the award for “his efforts over the past year to better engage with employees and customers,” and it noted that the CEO was fond of referring to United “as a people business.”

Ooopps!

The skies are no longer friendly for United. The company run by Munoz deserves the lumps and bumps it is taking over this.

Editor’s note: Late Tuesday, Munoz issued a second statement (his PR handlers probably convincing him, finally, that he was way off the mark in his first lame attempt). Here’s the full text:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment.  I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard.   No one should ever be mistreated this way.  

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.    

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.  

I promise you we will do better.  

Sincerely, 

Oscar

 

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