Flying blind—United’s ongoing “crises” suggest a brand that just doesn’t care

by | May 16, 2018 | Analysis, Public Relations

United Airlines has been fighting for its reputational life over the last year. How can we ever forget last April when David Dao was forcibly dragged from a United plane after opting to not give up his paid seat on an oversold flight—and the amateur-hour response from brand chief Oscar Munoz that prompted a widespread #BoycottUnited movement? It took quite a while, but the airline was finally getting its image back on track.

Then, just last month there was the incident where a dog suffocated to death during a three-and-a-half-hour trip when a flight attendant forced the owner to stash his pet in an overhead bin—and another botched attempt to apologize to the dog’s owner and to the traveling public that reignited the boycott calls. And this happened just a week after United mistakenly shipped another dog to Japan while its owners returned home to Kansas.

“You can’t talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into,” Anthony D’Angelo, national chair of the Public Relations Society of America, said after the dog died, a Reuters article reported.

“I would think that anyone that has to travel with United is going to think twice now,” added Dan Rene, senior vice president of Levick Public Relations, according to the report.

And just last week, United’s flight crew made another executive decision that has landed the brand in more reputational hot water—and a racial-discrimination lawsuit—when a Nigerian woman and her two young children were ejected from a flight after a (white) passenger’s complaint that she was “pungent.”

Yes, an airline is allowed to remove a passenger for smelling bad, but the woman’s lawsuit alleges a more discriminatory scenario—after having no problems on her preceding connector flight, the suit describes the complaining man as refusing to give the woman her rightful seat, then blocking her from moving down the aisle, and then lodging his complaint. A flight attendant then told the woman that the pilot “personally requested” that she be ejected from the plane.

United must be aware by now that its flight staff is behaving badly—and you’d think someone with authority would inform them that they need to handle extenuating circumstances in a more professional manner. In most of these cases (we’re not sure how that dog ended up in Japan), a flight attendant is making a half-baked spot decision, the rest of the crew is piling on, an innocent passenger is being mistreated, and the higher-ups are issuing short apologies, seemingly with their fingers crossed behind their backs. From top to bottom, this brand does not know how to think outside of the box.

With all the options for air travel out there, why would anyone want to give business to a company that behaves this way?

We’re not sure United is even looking for ways to improve its processes and possibly save its reputation, but just in case, here are a few tips:

Make more collaborative decisions

Whether a passenger should be removed from a flight or a dog should be shoved in a storage bin shouldn’t be up to whatever flight assistant happens to be on duty. United would be well served to bring some authoritative voices into these decisions, even if it means making that call to corporate from right there on the plane. Or perhaps some enforceable policy written out by which all personnel must abide (which might include a contact number to call if something odd happens).

Remember that every action you take can quickly go around the world

The days of confronting a customer without being caught on someone’s phone camera are long gone. No matter what the situation is, if your employee decides it’s his place to publicly berate a customer, that consumer-generated video could be viral before you even know what happened. And consumers never take the brand’s side in these situations, so don’t expect any sympathy afterwards either.

Have some freakin’ respect

This goes for the entire company, from the CEO on down. No matter the situation, treat people like they are actual people—act like you’re in control and handle confrontational episodes with a little integrity. And when an apology is called for, put in the effort to at least act graciously and try to be genuine. Authenticity is among a brand’s highest forms of collateral these days. Get some.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter