When an Airline’s PR Strategy Crashes and Burns

Last week’s ill-fated “protest” Pepsi commercial may have redefined the phrase “tone deaf.” But as of this morning, United Airlines was closing in on Pepsi with its own example of corporate communications gone awry. This time, the misstep wasn’t a video, but a company’s head-scratching reaction to one.The clip shows a man violently ripped from his seat after United apparently oversold his flight and selected him as one of the unlucky passengers who would be forced to get off the plane. No matter that the passenger had already been granted a seat, or that he claimed to be a doctor who needed to get home to treat his patients in the morning.

You’ve probably seen the clip on your Facebook feed. If not, prepare yourself, because the footage of the screaming and bloodied passenger is jarring, to say the least.


Airline’s Reaction

Once the video began lighting up social media this morning, United CEO Oscar Munoz released a statement that was more notable for its omissions than its (limited) content:





From a legal perspective, it might be unwise for Munoz to admit wrongdoing or even apologize directly to the passenger who was dragged away. After all, it is early hours, and information may come to light that mitigates the perception that an innocent physician had his seat unfairly taken away, and was then roughed up as he was dragged off the plane in front of traumatized fellow passengers. Maybe. But there’s a fine line between acting cautiously in crisis, and speaking (or writing) insensitively. This statement crossed that line.

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.”  

I’m guessing this was an upsetting event to all concerned, particularly the affected passenger and those sitting next to him. It would have been easy to fix that opening sentence.

“We apologize for having to re-accomodate these customers.”

Once a passenger was ripped from his seat and hauled down the aisle in front of shocked onlookers, the “re-accomodation” became the second biggest outrage of the flight. By glossing over that, the United statement seems completely out of touch.

“We are …reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him…”

This is a positive message, but it doesn’t go far enough. Nowhere does the statement reassure the public that passenger safety and comfort are top priorities, nor does it promise to work to avoid these kinds of incidents in the future.
We may not know the complete details of this air travel nightmare for some time to come. But every minute that United delays a more thoughtful and thorough media statement, the flying public is letting a very vivid and disturbing video speak for itself.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.