The power of an apology in a crisis: lessons from the United Airlines, Pepsi ad debacles

Two months ago, United Airlines witnessed one of the biggest PR debacles, any airline firm would have encountered in global aviation history. It all unfolded with the video of a United Airlines passenger Doctor David Dao, 69, being forcibly dragged out from a flight which surfaced on social media and went viral. Following the negligence of the airline staff and hostility of airport authorities, Dr. Dao sustained a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth as a result of this ghastly encounter. 

First let’s recap the dramatic turn of events that lead to the crisis spiralling out of control.

United Airline released a series of statements, after witnessing widespread criticism from customers, news agencies, activist groups and social media users across every nook and corner of the globe. The first official rejoinder from United was perceived as cold and insensitive one. In this statement United Airlines said, “We apologise for the overbook situation”, but made no reference to Dr. Dao or the video.

Later, the company released another statement from its chief executive, Oscar Munoz, referring to the episode as an “upsetting one.” In the statement Mr. Munoz apologized to other passengers on board, but paid no heed to the callous treatment extended to Dr. Dao. Throughout this episode, United Airlines did not apologize for the incident, but chose to frame Dr. David Dao for his misconduct.

That very evening, a letter from Oscar Munoz (which later became public) went out to United Airline employees. The communication, assured employees that the management stood by them through the crisis and is doing all it takes to iron out the problems. He also outlined the sequence of events that lead to the unpleasant incident.

No apology had gone out from United Airlines for almost two days. There were stories surfacing all over leading news dailies on Dr. Dao’s personal life, his homosexual encounters and psychological problems.

Just in the nick of time when the crisis was about to snowball into a major catastrophe for United Airlines, as customers threatened to boycott the airline and stocks tumbled, lawmakers stepped into action and an investigation was summoned. This compelled United Airlines to change its course with a statement from Mr. Munoz, in which he confirmed that the airline took “full responsibility” for the episode. United Airlines said it would offer a full refund to every passenger on the fateful flight.

Listed below are three steps through which United Airlines could have averted this major PR blunder.

#1 Anticipate: We live in an age, where disaster response is of prime importance, but equally imperative is crisis preparedness. Was United Airlines prepared for this major crisis? From the sequence of events and the reaction time, it clearly seemed like it had missed the bus. Brands need to understand that no disaster strikes with invitation. So how can companies be sure they are prepared for a crisis? Firstly it should be mandatory for every corporate to have a crisis management cell and ensure periodic involvement of this team in crisis simulation exercises. It is also vital for every company to formalise a crisis manual that details every action and process that need to be undertaken during a crisis E.g. Important contacts, Crisis Response flow chart, Draft rejoinders among other information.

#2 Acknowledge: The most profound approach for an airline firm or that matter any brand that thrives in an area where “Customer is unquestionably king” was to publicly apologise to the victim. Besides traditional media communication, a video press release by the chief executive conveying an apology could have worked wonders for United Airlines in the social media space. Take for example the Emirates fire incident last year, where the Chief executive took immediate ownership and released a video communication on Emirates views and actions, besides changing the company’s logo on all digital platforms to safe colours and removing the cover image on the social media platforms. It is implausible why United Airlines took so much time to tender a simple apology.

#3 Act fast: United Airlines Chief Oscar Munoz could have the very next day visited Dr. David Dao besides providing reassurance to him and his family. A humanitarian gesture as simple as this could have garnered a good deal of positive press for United Airlines. Isn’t good PR all about creating compelling stories after all?

The second logical step was to assure all customers and stakeholders that United Airlines will do all it takes to investigate the incident and ensure justice is served right. It should have made appropriate moves that reiterated its strong focus on protecting customer safety and integrity. Even if it had to take drastic steps such as sacking of crew members and remedial action against the Chicago Aviation Security staff involved in the incident. A positive step by United Airlines we all must take note of, was its immediate change in policy that earlier allowed displacing passengers during overbooked flights. The new policy launched a week into the incident, maintained that United Airlines crew members would not be authorised to deplane a passenger who is already seated.

As reputation managers it is no mystery that it takes years and sometimes even decades to build successful brands, but a few moments to destroy them. With the advent of social media communication, the fundamentals of reputation building and damage have witnessed a paradigm shift and continue to face complexities as we move ahead.

Could United Airlines have learnt a lesson or two from the recent episode with global soft drink major Pepsi, which immediately pulled down and apologised for a controversial advertisement that borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement?

Was the United Airlines management contemptuous about the incident that it took them days to acknowledge the goof-up? How equipped was their PR and Communication team? Or did the recommendations of the Public Relation and Reputation members go unnoticed by higher authorities within the boardroom?

Following the United Airlines fiasco, another incident came in which an American Airlines crew member violently took a stroller from the woman, hitting her with it and just missing her child, and the incident again was captured on video. The only difference was that American Airlines promptly issued an apology, besides sacking the crew member involved. Now that was prompt!

The United Airlines fiasco is a thought provoking case for the PR fraternity and underscores the significance of “precision timing” in salvaging the reputation of a company during the event of a crisis small or big.

Kevin Braganza is senior account director, Ketchum Sampark India

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