Wow, maybe we should do a blog series about PR disasters! Because that seems to be all that’s in the news lately. Let’s talk about what happened with United Airlines, how they handled it, and what could have been done differently. Let’s also talk about who benefited from this disaster.
United Airlines overbooked a flight. An airline employee came on board the flight, where passengers were already seated and announced the flight was overbooked and that four people would have to volunteer to get off the flight. The volunteers would be rewarded with a monetary voucher. When no one volunteered, four people were randomly selected and asked to leave the flight. Three of them left without a problem, the fourth, David Dao, refused to leave. A physical altercation resulted, police were called in and Dao was physically removed from the aircraft, to the dismay and shock of many of the passengers. This was all to make room for several United employees who needed to get to Louisville. None of this was interpreted, it was all caught on video by several witnesses.
With today’s technology and social media, it wasn’t long before the video of Dao being bloodied and dragged off the United Flight was spread around the internet like wildfire. And it wasn’t long before people were making their own speculations as well. Did the police have a right to be there? Did United do the right thing? Were the employees only following orders? Was this man selected randomly? Or was it because he was Chinese? Is it unethical to oversell a flight?
Shortly after, United CEO Oscar Munoz offered a statement on the event and essentially defended the actions of the employees. It was met with harsh criticism. A few days later he backtracked a little and apologized to David Dao. Too little too late, said many.
What could have been done differently?
- First of all, it’s not too crazy to think this situation could have been anticipated. People unfortunately get bumped from flights all the time. I’m willing to bet that they’re not all happy about it. If there was not an amount of money that Dao was willing to accept to leave the flight, there probably was someone else on the flight that would.
- Adhere to your values. United’s motto is “Fly the Friendly Skies”! Sure, they were still on the ground, but I think this still applies! As a company, you should always stick to your core values and your policies should always reflect that, no matter what. Physical violence should never have a place anywhere, especially in the service industry.
- Take the blame. When something happens to one of your customers, particularly a physical injury, the first thing out of your mouth, before even your next breath, should be an apology. Even if it’s not your fault, even if it’s not your employee’s fault, even if it was an act of God. You need to take blame because it happened while the customer was under the care of your company.
- Take adversity as an opportunity for greatness. Do the right thing. Make a good impression.
Well, no one truly benefitted from this experience. Except the internet, as usual.