Dear United: Some Unsolicited PR Advice

United Airlines has been in the spotlight of late, and not in a good way. Last week, a child traveling with her family on a “buddy pass” was made to strip in the airport because she was wearing leggings, which are among the long list of items women traveling as guests of the airline are not permitted to wear.

This week’s kerfuffle involved video of security bloodying up a paying passenger who refused to give up his seat so a United employee could fly for free. United overbooked a flight and offered $400 and a hotel to anyone volunteering to take a later flight in order to accommodate several United staff members that wanted to board. No dice. The offer was raised to $800, but still, no takers. So the airline selected four people for “involuntary denied boarding,” or, in non-airline speak, to be booted off the plane so that the United staff members could take their places.

One of those people was a doctor, who insisted he had patients to see the next day and refused to deplane. Security was called, and, much to United’s chagrin, the ugly scene of a screaming doctor being bloodied by security and drug off the plane was posted all over the internet.

Response from United’s Twitter account and the statement from United CEO were as underwhelming as a day-old fast-food hamburger. So what should United have done differently?

  1. Never try to defend your brand on Twitter. In times of heightened emotions, trying to defend your brand in 140 characters is madness. The situation inevitably requires more detail than 140 characters can provide, so don’t event try. If you absolutely must, consult your crisis communicator, write up a thorough and sincere apology, post it to your site and Tweet a link to it.
  2. Have a crisis communications plan in place. Since United seems to be experiencing a spate of bad publicity made worse by its lackluster or callous social and PR response, it’s a good idea to have a crisis plan in place for emergencies like this one.
  3. Own your shit. Don’t hide behind the passive voice and say “the flight was overbooked” — own your part in the event by using the active voice: “We overbooked the flight.” See? Now it looks like you’re taking ownership of your part in the situation instead of blaming the customer. Better, right?
  4. Remember those three words everyone wants to hear. No, not “I love you.” It’s “I am sorry.” If every CEO in this country could learn how to give a sincere apology NOT written by a lawyer, the world would be a much better place — and the United brand would have a much more positive sentiment at the moment. Replace “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers” with “I’m sorry this came to violence; that is unacceptable.”
  5. Remember that a crisis is an opportunity to tattoo your brand with the public. The public wants to connect with the brand, and this type of crisis is the perfect opportunity to do so. Don’t blow it by letting your lawyer write your apology. Write the statement you would want to hear if it were you. That’s how you turn a potential PR nightmare into a branding opportunity. Do you want to be the brand who strips kids and bullies its customers off planes, or do you want to be the brand that admits its mistakes and wins the hearts and minds of the public?

That being said, I agree with Scott Monty that the first step to crisis communications is to stop doing the thing that created the crisis in the first place. I doubt that airline overbooking will stop any time soon, but the policies guiding how they deal with overbooking, the language they use to describe it and the response when it causes a public communications crisis certainly are ripe for review.

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