Sorry’s not such a hard word when your share price is in freefall – more comms lessons for United


United’s CEO has been promising to think again about the airline’s ‘re-accomodating’ policies as the PR nightmare continues.


It’s amazing what a collapsing share price can do to focus a CEO’s communications skills as United Continental airline’s PR nightmare rumbles on.

After video of the forcible ejection/physical assault on a paying customer hit social media, United’s crisis comms has been a disaster, with CEO Oscar Monoz using weird euphemisms – such as ‘re-accomodate’ instead of ‘drag a passenger from his seat and chuck him off the plane – while then accusing the same passenger of being “disruptive and beligerent” in a private email to staffer, which was, of course, leaked.

I noted yesterday that Wall Street had seemed phlegmatic about the issue in the first instance. But in the hours that followed publication of that observation, all hell broke loose, with nearly $1 billion dollars dropping from United’s share price.

That’s a big enough number for Monoz to need to take some corrective action, which he did in the form of a pledge to review the company’s policies for seeking volunteers to give up their seats, for handling oversold flights and for partnering with airport authorities and local law enforcement.

Note – he hasn’t committed to doing anything about them or indeed admitted that there’s anything wrong with the current policies. The day before he was praising United staff for having follwed the existing ones to the letter. But what he has done is be seen to be doing something.

Monoz also made a more fulsome apology for the incident:

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.

Meanwhile the incident continues to draw attention and comment. The most alarming long term implications for United will come from the fury expressed on Chinese social media. The Asian market is a lucrative one and talk of boycotts is not to be taken lightly.

So the fact that #UnitedAirlinesforcespassengeroffplane has been a top trending topic over the last two days on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, should ring alarm bells.

At the White House, Press Secretary Sean Spicer took a moment out from highlighting Hitler’s hitherto unknown unwillingness to gas his own people – it’s been a big week for inept communications strategies! –  to comment on the United story:

I don’t think anyone looks at that video and isn’t a little disturbed that another human being is treated that way,. Clearly watching another human being dragged down an aisle, watching blood come from their face after hitting an armrest or whatever, I don’t think there’s a circumstance that you can’t sit back and say this probably could have been handled a little bit better, when you’re talking about another human being.

Meanwhile rival airlines are having fun at United’s expense:


My take

The share price stabilised, but the damage is done and far from over.

Image credit - Twitter