Apologies should be the first step toward correcting a problem. They should never deepen a crisis.
And that’s where United has gotten itself into deep trouble.
This week, United suffered a public-relations black eye when videos emerged of a 69-year-old passenger being dragged off a flight by police, at the behest of the airline, for refusing to give up his seat so a United employee could have it. Several videos posted on Twitter and Facebookshowed the passenger screaming, before being dragged on his back down the aisle, his face bloodied, as fellow passengers reacted in horror to his treatment. Witnesses told news media that the flight was sold out and random customers were selected to be bumped and told to leave the plane after attempts to get volunteers failed.
United already has taken hits for customer-service issues – remember the kids stopped from boarding a flight because of their leggings? – but the brutal, personal nature of this incident elevated this to a different level of corporate crisis, one that needed a firm, empathetic response to protect United’s reputation.
And here United failed. Three times.
United’s initial response treated the incident as if it were a minor inconvenience for the other passengers: “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked,” the company said in its first official statement. “After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”
So United apologized, but “for the overbook situation.” Overbooking, of course, wasn’t what struck horror in the people on the plane or the millions who saw the subsequent videos. It also put the blame squarely on the passenger – a customer, after all – who, while obstinate, didn’t deserve the disproportionate level of force from the police and security personnel acting on the company’s behalf.
Unsurprisingly, United’s sterile and tone-deaf response made matters worse. Social media, which provided the kindling to create a crisis for United, exploded as if napalm had been thrown on the fire. It was a rookie communications mistake that seemed ignorant of the real reputational damage at stake for the company. Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account went so far as to remind United that the use of the word “volunteer” in dealing with passengers was a poor choice of words.
So the company decided to issue a second statement, this time from the, Oscar Munoz, the CEO, himself.
And that’s where the situation got even worse.
Munoz’s statement started with a solid acknowledgement that the event was horrific. “This was an upsetting event to all of us at United,” it began.
It also ended with the right tone: “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this issue.”
Amen. Those last two lines tell the audience – media and customers – that you are taking this seriously and you want to reach the passenger dragged off the plane and deal with him as a human.
But there was a sentence in between that was so awful, it ruined an otherwise solid crisis response.
“I apologize for having to re-accommodate these passengers.”
Even in the best of contexts, “re-accommodate” is an awful piece of corporate speak, a lifeless word designed to hide the inconvenience of being bumped or suffering through a flight cancellation. It has never been applied to being physically removed from your seat and being dragged like a garbage bag to a curb. It was an awful word to use in this context, particularly since it killed any public empathy United seemed to be showing from its first sentence. It made an otherwise human statement seem contrived and robotic.
It also led to widespread ridicule. #ReAccommodate began to trend on Twitter, with various degrees of snark. “On behalf of the White Star Line, I apologize for having to re-accommodate these passengers,” and so forth.
Words matter in a crisis. Apologies are appropriate and require a real degree of contrition. They cannot be generic or, worse, directed to the wrong set of people. United got it wrong at first and made it worse by being milquetoast in its penance when it had the chance to make it right. You can’t control how a crisis starts, but you have full control over how your brand responds. Using a word like “re-accommodate” doesn’t make it clear to those passengers and to future customers that you knew what occurred was wrong and serious. A poorly chosen word like that does nothing to make people feel safe and protected within your brand environment. If these are the friendly skies, people would rather take their chances with their enemies.
The cherry on United’s bad PR day was an ill-timed and off-message internal memo designed to allow Munoz to show support for United’s employees. The intention was noble but the execution was flubbed. While it’s important to show solidarity with your team – and there’s no doubt many employees were just has horrified by the video as the general public – Munoz used the memo to directly attack the man pulled off the flight (the passenger was described as “disruptive and belligerent”) and doubled down on the corporate speak that led to his ridicule (“we followed our involuntary denial of boarding process”). Worst of all, despite a day which showed what many independent observers saw as physical assault, Munoz defended all the events that led to the incident when he crowed that the company “followed established procedures.” So the operation was a success, but the patient died. Not a good message.
United had three chances to calm a crisis in its early hours and failed. The consequence is that it will be harder for United’s crisis to be bumped – er, re-accommodated – from the wild west of social-media commentary and indignation.
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