Earlier this week, KMGH-TV, the ABC affiliate in Denver, sought a PR perspective on the current travails of United Airlines after video of a customer being forcibly removed from a flight went viral. (It’s important to point out that the passenger was dragged off the aircraft not by United Airlines employees but by Chicago Police Department Aviation Security officers – at least one of whom has been suspended pending investigation.)
United has been widely criticized for this incident and for good reason. I told KMGH that the customer isn’t always right, but that in this case, United Airlines clearly was wrong. The situation never should have been allowed to escalate to that degree, and it’s not over yet. At a minimum, United will get sued and probably will reach a costly settlement; the airline will lose customers; and it already has lost more than $1 billion in market capitalization as its stock has declined following the incident.
What should United do at this point, KMGH asked? United should start with a sincere and very public apology which not only acknowledges that the incident was unacceptable but that the initial response was tone-deaf. Then, the airline should do some serious soul-searching. If its culture and operating processes enabled this to happen, then something is broken at United. Somewhat belatedly, United has said it will review company policies for handling over-sold flights and partnering with local law enforcement agencies.
Some media coverage has pointed out the irony of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz having been named “Communicator of the Year” by PR Week magazine recently, an honor that PR Week seems to be reconsidering. In his now-public initial message to employees, Munoz’s instinct clearly was to defend his team. We know from our airline industry experience that front-line employees appreciate it when management has their backs, because sometimes customers can be rude, difficult and downright obnoxious.
But saying you stand with employees whose decision-making caused so much damage to your brand, while shaving a billion dollars off your market cap, is the wrong move. United should remind every employee who deals with customers – from gate agents to flight attendants to cockpit crew – that they all are responsible for building and protecting the United Airlines brand, every day, in every interaction. The brand is the most valuable asset they’ve got, and it suffered a major self-inflicted wound this week.