United We Fall – How Not to Respond to a Crisis

It’s been that kind of week for United Airlines. If you’ve heard anything about the story, you know that it was just about a perfect example of how not to handle such a situation. Instead of focusing on everything that went wrong for them, however – because the internet’s taking care of that – let’s take a look at how their response could’ve been better and how to deal with the fallout should something like this happen to you.

The three most important aspects of a company’s response to a developing crisis are the when, the what, and the how.

When do you first respond?

A company’s entire reputation can crash and burn in the social media courts before their employees have finished their morning coffee. A speedy response – even just acknowledging the issue – can go a long way towards reassuring people that you aren’t turning a blind eye towards the problem.

Let’s go over the timeline here – a passenger named David Dao was forcibly removed from his seat on United Flight 3411 at approximately 5:20 PM on the 9th of April. United’s first comment on the incident was a vague tweet speaking of ‘passenger reaccomodation’ – a tweet that arguably did more harm than good, but more on that later – in the early hours of the 10th, but it took until almost 9:30 AM for Oscar Munoz, the CEO, to issue an official statement. That’s 16 hours – plenty of time for videos of the incident to circulate online and for the situation to spiral out of control. Given the nature of this particular problem, an earlier statement might still have not been enough to prevent this from snowballing; however, it surely couldn’t have hurt United Airlines more than their silence did.

What do you say?

Of course, getting in early is one thing but having something substantial to say is equally important. For example, if your company could’ve handled the situation better, say so. Don’t stop there, either – always talk about the solution that you’ll be working towards, even if it isn’t in place yet.

This is arguably where United Airlines became architects of their own downfall. You see, there were just so many things wrong with what happened on Flight 3411:

  • Security manhandled a 69-year-old man to get him to leave a flight
  • (a flight that he had bought tickets for, mind you)
  • During the incident, he was injured and his face was bloody
  • He also happened to be of Asian origin, which stirred up another hornet’s nest
  • Did we mention that he was a doctor?
  • And that he was scheduled to treat some patients in Louisville the next day?

Even just a couple of those should’ve been enough to warn Oscar Munoz and United that a full-blown crisis could be in the offing if it wasn’t handled properly. When so many potential flashpoints can be seen in just one incident, they should’ve pulled out all the stops to ensure that they had a comprehensive solution incoming to both compensate the victim as well as investigate the circumstances that led to this in the first place. Instead, we got a middle-of-the-road response that suggests that United weren’t taking this incident as seriously as they should’ve been.

How do you say it?

Tone is absolutely vital in a developing crisis. If your response comes across to the aggrieved public that you think that this is just much ado about nothing and it’ll all blow over in no time…well, chances are it won’t. Getting the tone right in such cases can be tricky, but there’s no surer way to torpedo an official communication than a perceived lack of sincerity.

However, sincerity was some distance away from the response we did get – yes, it was an apology of sorts, but ‘I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.’ came across as corporate double-talk rather than a satisfactory expression of genuine concern and responsibility. A series of follow-up statements were made after this one, each trying to find a better way of expressing United’s resolve that something like this would never happen again – but it was too late, the damage was already done.

Unfortunately for United Airlines, Flight 3411 was just the start of a truly awful week for them but there are lessons here to be learnt for just about anyone. Of course, this is only the foundation of a comprehensive crisis-management procedure, but it’s as good a place to start as any. Here’s hoping you never need it; but, should you happen to, this will help you fly the unfriendly skies.