Re-accommodating United’s Place in Your Travel Plans

United Airlines has been in the headlines this week — and not in a good way. The initial response from the company CEO, below, fanned flames of public outrage after a video was posted to social media of a passenger being violently removed from an overbooked flight. Three experts from Northlich’s public relations department weigh in on why it is so important to choose words wisely.

Response to United Express Flight 3411, April 10, 2017 (From the newsroom on the United Airlines website)

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
— Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines

Juli Hale, Account Supervisor, Public Relations

As a best practice, United should have a crisis plan and, without question, this incident was the right time to dust it off and put it to work. Thanks to social media and the video of the passenger being removed by the now suspended security guard, the incident made headlines before the plane even left the runway, making it even more vital for a quick response from United’s leadership.

With a policy requiring staff to remove passengers from overbooked flights if none volunteer to leave, it was only a matter of time before the airline would be forced to publicly address the situation of an outspoken “re-accommodated” passenger. A proper risk assessment would have ensured CEO Oscar Munoz could respond quickly and effectively.

Instead, he provided a half-hearted apology, not to the forcibly removed passenger or the others who witnessed it, but for “having to re-accommodate … customers.” As an award-winning communicator, Munoz should have known better than to wing it.

In a single action, United’s corporate reputation took a serious hit in a number of key areas — ethics, management, leadership, reliability and emotional appeal.

The public is forgiving, but only when you offer an authentic apology and assurances that it won’t happen again.

Tim Sansbury, VP, Public Relations

“Re-accommodate.” Really? It’s a made-up word. I pray this isn’t the work of an all-too-clever member of United’s public relations team. I strongly doubt it is. Nothing in the PR playbook says, “During a crisis, find the one word that will make everything worse.” The PR team must have been locked outside the conference room. They should have broken through the door and crawled on their hands and knees to Oscar Munoz, begging him not to characterize this passenger’s treatment as “re-accommodating.” The takeaway from this for CEOs everywhere: You’ve got PR advisors; use them!

Kristine Glenn, Account Supervisor, Public Relations

You cannot underestimate the importance of your brand’s response to a crisis situation. A well-crafted response won’t immediately squelch backlash or embarrassment from a crisis, but it can stop it from erupting into an all-out multimillion-dollar retaliation against the brand. 

Dragging a paying passenger off of a plane is not re-accommodation. Whoever chose that word should be re-accommodated within the United Airlines organization. The entire incident on flight 3411 is an atrocity in customer service, not to mention in basic respect for a fellow human being. But the word “re-accommodation” from the mouth of CEO Oscar Munoz insulted the intelligence of the general public and now the company is paying the price. Shares in United Continental Holdings are in freefall; hundreds of millions (if not billions) of dollars will be wiped off the company’s market capitalization. Sticks and stones, United.