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PR Nightmares – Who Handled it Better?

United Airlines vs. American Airlines


By now, everyone should be well aware of the black eye, figuratively and literally, left on United and American Airlines this month. In case you missed it, here is a quick rundown of the events:

First, we start with United Airlines. After refusing to give up his paid seat to accommodate transportation for United Airlines crewmembers on an overbooked flight, Dr. David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese American man, was violently dragged off United flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville. As a result of the horrific event, Dao sustained a concussion, broken nose, and the loss of two front teeth requiring reconstructive surgery. A video, filmed by another passenger, captured the horrifying scene on camera and it quickly went viral sparking outrage worldwide.

On the heels of United’s PR debacle, American Airlines had to deal with a PR crisis of their own. Another video began making its way around the internet, this time involving an altercation with an American Airlines flight attendant and a passenger traveling with her two children. As the passenger boarded her flight, she found herself in a tussle with the flight attendant as he tried to wrestle the stroller away almost striking the baby’s head in the process and leaving the passenger in tears. When confronted by other passengers, a heated verbal altercation ensued.

In both cases, the power of social media was demonstrated with viral videos posted by other passengers sparking widespread outrage. For United in particular, two days after the incident, #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos was the number one trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. (third in the world), prompting slogans like:

The actions of both companies were horrifying, but let’s examine how each was handled from a PR perspective and identify if one airline handled it better than the other. I will give you a hint – American Airlines blew United Airlines out of the water.

Here are the two statements made by the respective airlines:

United Airlines:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. 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 situation.”

American Airlines:

“We have seen the video and have already started an investigation to obtain the facts. What we see on this video does not reflect our values or how we care for our customers. We are deeply sorry for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident. We are making sure all of her family’s needs are being met while she is in our care. After electing to take another flight, we are taking special care of her and her family and upgrading them to first class for the remainder of their international trip.

The actions of our team member captured here do not appear to reflect patience or empathy, two values necessary for customer care. In short, we are disappointed by these actions. The American team member has been removed from duty while we immediately investigate this incident.”

Let’s start with United’s statement, which was released a full day after the incident, breaking a cardinal rule of crisis communication – respond quickly and guide the narrative. The response made by United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz has received heavy criticism for only apologizing for having to re-accommodate the passenger and not for their treatment. Re-accommodation of a passenger was not the issue at hand, the treatment of a specific passenger was the issue, something never addressed by Munoz. The actions seen on video were not condemned, or even addressed. Munoz’s response never suggests the company felt any remorse about the treatment of this passenger and gives the impression they are merely upset they were caught. The statement was cold, canned, and far too late. It is important to note that Munoz also sent a letter to United Airlines’ employees standing behind the actions of the employee involved in the incident. The airline has now suffered millions of dollars in reputational damage in addition to facing legal action, which has now been settled.

American Airlines had the benefit of witnessing United Airlines fall flat on their face and took a much different approach in their initial statement. In stark contrast, American Airlines immediately expressed remorse, disappointment and embarrassment for what took place. The company also took action by removing the employee from active duty pending an investigation and upgrading the passenger and her family for the remainder of their international trip. Clearly, American Airlines learned from the mistakes of United Airlines and put the company in a much better position to recover in the court of public opinion.

No PR professional dreams about dealing with a crisis, but everyone needs to be prepared to handle one correctly. The two incidents outlined above provide good examples of how and how not to handle a crisis situation. While the circumstances will most likely be different, the lessons learned can be applied to most cases. Respond quickly, be sincere, and take action.

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