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You blew it, Oscar. You really did.

It is hard to weigh which one is worse. Violently yanking a 69-year old ticketed passenger from their airplane seat and dragging him off the plane in full view of shocked customers in order to accommodate a flight crew or the astonishingly asinine response by United Airlines to the whole incident. It took Oscar Munoz, United Airlines’ CEO 24 hours, 3 attempts and a 4 per cent plunge in United’s stock values – a drop worth about $800 million dollars—before an apology was delivered to an outraged world.

Munoz had initially offered a lame apology to the passenger for having to “re-accommodate” the man. He issued a second message in which he called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent” and said that the airline had followed “established procedures.” While Munoz did finally come to his senses in his third public message, significant reputational damage had been done. Twitter was ignited with one direct hit after another all aimed at United and Munoz’ pitiful attempt to explain his way out of a public relations disaster.

Scores of social media commenters in the U.S. have called for a boycott of United accusing the airline of discrimination because the passenger is Asian. An outcry has followed in China with many Chinese social media users accusing United of racism – by Tuesday evening, the topic “United forcibly removes passenger from plane” was the most popular topic on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, garnering more than 270 million views and more than 150,000 comments. The top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. today was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, with users proposing slogans such as “Not enough seating, prepare for a beating.”

The stakes are high and there is now no full escape from this incident for Munoz and United.

Munoz missed a divine opportunity to stop the blood letting by QUICKLY delivering a direct and sincere apology, without any qualifications, for United’s mistake, and certainly without disingenuous statements that attempt to demonize his paying customers.

He needed to be seen as shocked and appalled about the incident along with the gasping millions who watched the video shaking their heads in disbelief. Munoz set gasoline on his own burning aircraft by misreading his audience, spending too much time being right (in terms of regulations) instead of being correct (in terms of basic human treatment).

From the front line workers who believed it okay to keelhaul their customers like it was the wild west to a CEO who (quite shockingly) appeared to see nothing wrong with what went down on that plane, United Airline’s apparent “our way or the highway” culture is clearly completely rotten.

My advice: If your corporate culture doesn’t know how to apologize to clients (after all, bad things happen to even the best run organizations), show them how to deliver a respectful, thoughtful “We are sorry” or brace yourself for a social media and reputational backlash that may tear you, your organization – and perhaps your market position – to shreds.

Interested in learning more about crisis communications and issues management? Contact Senior Strategist Victor Tanti to see how Victor can help with your public relations challenges. 

About the author

Victor Tanti
Victor has perfected the art of crisis communications. He specializes in bridging relationships in Alberta’s toughest environments. With such diplomatic skills, it’s no wonder he was made Alberta’s Consul Representative to Malta. And he does it all only like Victor can—with style, grace and decorum.

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