United Airlines is known for its public relations, but in the worst possible way. In 2008 they became famous as the airline that broke Dave Carroll’s guitar. He and his band, Sons of Maxwell, wrote a rather humorous three song series titled “United Breaks Guitars” to give their opinion on the way United handled their claim. Now in 2017, United has come into the public eye once again for its mistreatment of a customer.
April 9, a passenger was forcibly removed from a United flight after refusing to give up his seat. The initial problem began here. United overbooked its flight, forgetting to include United employees in the count for seats. Compensation was offered to volunteers, but refused, so passengers were randomly selected and asked to leave. This is legal; however, legality doesn’t protect you from public scorn.
If you type “United Airline’s passenger removal” into Google, you generate about six million hits. Of the first 15 pages not a single article is from United’s page. This in and of itself is concerning. When a company’s name is searched in Google its website ought to come up first. You want to give the facts about the problem yourself.
Another misstep came from United CEO, Oscar Munoz. His response to the event came quickly, within a day of the event; however, it did not directly address why this event occurred or how it was going to be prevented from happening again. Both of which, he was mercilessly criticized for by the public.
His second response, a short letter, included an emotional appeal, an apology and a promise for change with a date of when a report would be released. Had this response come first, it might have been better received, however, people felt this letter was backtracking for his first less emotional response.
United has since offered compensation to passengers on the flight, changed to their policy on overbooking, and the fired members of their PR team. However, these changes have come too little too late for many United customers, as can been seen through the plummet in its stocks.
Time is of the essence in public relations, but so are words. The genuineness of a response and call to action are just as important as the speed a message must be communicated. I don’t think United will be getting another song from this incident, but they will certainly be getting more flack, and possibly a lawsuit or two.