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In its communications response to the now-notorious incident in which a passenger was dragged from a flight, United Airlines made an all-too-common crisis error: It wavered on the tone and content of its messages, going from defensive to — after it and its stock got pummeled — prostrate. The company’s early missteps clearly contributed to the severity of the crisis.
United Airlines misjudged the situation and its response because it didn’t grasp all the facts or what the public’s response would be. It fell into the amateur mistake of releasing successive statements that evolve in tone and substance until the public is finally satisfied that the company “gets it.”
It took three public statements and one internal one until United Airlines got it. A Washington Post headline pegged it as going “from ‘tone-deaf’ to ‘textbook.’”
From the start, United Airlines’ timbre was off. It mainly seemed to want to express that it was in the right. Here is its first full statement, attributed to a spokesperson: “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. 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.”
This was terrible. “Refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily” sounds almost military, and certainly not compassionate considering that the man, 69-year-old physician David Dao, was bloodied as he was yanked from the flight. Many questioned the company’s definition of “voluntarily.”
And United Airlines didn’t apologize for what it did to Dao; it apologized for the “overbook situation.” Even that was wrong: The flight wasn’t overbooked. Four United Airlines employees who needed to be in Louisville for a flight the next day arrived late at the gate, after the plane was boarded, and the company decided to remove four passengers for them.
This first statement caused the Twitterverse to double up on its contempt.
A few hours later, another statement — also not great — was put out under the name of CEO Oscar Munoz (pictured). The CEO said the event was “upsetting” and apologized “for having to re-accommodate these customers.”
“Re-accommodate” was disastrous. It is industry jargon, which should be avoided as much as possible in crisis messages. But on top of that, it was insensitive industry jargon. According to United Airlines, dragging a passenger down an airplane aisle is “re-accommodating.”
Then Munoz sent a memo to employees, which of course leaked. While the company leader wanted to buck up the spirits of his no-doubt demoralized workers, what he said only further infuriated customers and other commenters.
Munoz praised the employees involved, saying they “followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this” (that may not be true). He positively lit into Dao, who he said “became more and more disruptive and belligerent.” At the same time, he declared that “treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are.”
The problem is, few of the millions of people around the globe who viewed the videos of the incident believe that — at least not the part about respecting customers.
Finally, after taking a drubbing on social media and in the press all day on April 11, a humbled Munoz issued yet another statement that afternoon.
He now referred to the “truly horrific event” for which he offered his “deepest apologies.” He finally apologized to Dao (“No one should ever be mistreated this way”). He went from defensive to defeated (“I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right”).
Munoz said the company would investigate its procedures for such situations. In a smart move, he gave a date (April 30) for when he would report back on its progress (woe be to him if he doesn’t make that deadline).
The company’s messages, taken together, show an amazing insensitivity, tardiness in sizing up the situation, and mix of messages. It’s astonishing that the first statements made no attempt to understand that being thrown off a full flight could be humiliating and infuriating. Social-media commenters were clearly empathizing with Dao’s plight.
At least in his last message, Munoz said the procedures would be revisited.
— Thom Weidlich
Photo Credit: United Airlines
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