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United CEO’s latest PR statement: Stud or dud?

After reportedly losing close to US$800 million in value,  United Airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz, has finally released a statement which seems somewhat heartfelt.

Munoz, in this attempt, said the incident was truly horrific and the airlines takes “full responsibility” to make things right. The full statement reads:

“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.   I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.  

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.  I promise you we will do better.”

The most recent statement is a far cry from what was initially released where in four lines (or five, depending on what your font size is) he said the entire incident was upsetting to everyone at United.

Also, in the initial holding statement, rather than apologising for the consumer’s injuries, Munoz apologised for having to re-accommodate customers, and said the team is working with a “sense of urgency” to have a detailed review of what happened.

A rather well established non apology, if you ask us.

And while we know the reality of PR professionals and lawyers have often butted heads over what a statement should say following a crisis such as this, PR professional Lars Voedisch, founder of PRecious Communications said that this is a clear example of “too little, too late”. He added:

This is what was needed – but as a first statement and not a third attempt to handle the situation.

The second, in this instance, was the internal memo sent out to employees saying he stood by the team.Voedisch added that while he finally addresses both issues in this statement and genuinely apologises for the incident, it is hard to tell if consumers would actually trust someone who needs this many attempts to get an apology right. Many might even wonder if he was forced to make the statement.

Despite the word “apologise” being in the statement, it wasn’t really an apology, said Voedisch. This is “because of the clear disconnect of what might be technically correct in terms of following established rules, and the perceived cruelty of the actions.”

“In any crisis it’s about getting it fast, right, out and over. In this case, United reacted fast – but with a holding statement that didn’t close any loops. The apology was at best half-hearted. So far, it’s far from UA getting it right,” he said.

Speaking about the internal memo, Voedisch said that while it was applaud-able that he stood by his employees,the move would absolutely hamper the brand’s image.

“Obviously there were multiple layers of judgement calls gone wrong. So maybe the story to employees should have been about having to following the rules and how those rules and processes need an overhaul,” he said.

Meanwhile, Joseph Barratt, founder of Mutant Communications said that while every brand is going to make mistakes from time to time, the true value comes from how the brands deal with it. He added that while an apology is a great first step to recovery, it will take a lot of work from United’s end to come back from this.

United Airlines is basically writing the guide book on how to escalate a crises. Contradictions, non-apologies, justifications, and jargon – it’s a counter productive approach that is destroying their brand.

Barratt added, “The comments by the CEO clearly shows how much holistic thought is behind their slogan of “Fly the Friendly Skies”.

Going forward

Voedisch added that going forward, the airline needs to treat the affected individual with respect after his dignity was publicly humiliated with a sincere apology and over compensation for the treatment. And it needs to ensure its past and potential future travellers that such a situation will never ever happen to them.

And of course, it goes without saying the airline has to of course fix the real issue of changing procedures, over booking plans and bumping off passengers.

Barratt added:

United can turn this into an opportunity to renew the brand and live up to its slogan if it actually cared – which I’m not convinced it does.

But, if they were to be keen, an entire review and structural change is needed going forward.

“The company also needs to re-evaluate how customers are treated  along with regular feedback processes which are reported publicly on social and in the media. Instant feedback monitors at gates, tying elements of performance bonuses to customer feedback, more effective training, are some of the areas the brand need to look into,” suggested Barratt.

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