‘Mea maxima culpa’ all round as United execs try to move on from social media crisis


“Accidents happen”, according to one analyst yesterday. Wall Street gave United management an easier time than social media did over its appalling treatment of a passenger last week. Have they learned any digital PR lessons?

The sorrowful skies

When senior management at United Continental announced the airline’s first quarter numbers yesterday, there was clearly one almighty elephant in the room – last week’s PR nightmare following the forcible eviction from a plane of a paying passenger to make room for United employees.

This unforced error on the part of United resulted in a social media storm, with the incident captured on video and broadcast around the world. The problems were compounded by CEO Oscar Munoz’s leaked email to staff in which he accused the passenger of being belligerent and disruptive, comments he was forced to try to walk back in a series of interviews later. All told, as we said last week, a pitch-perfect example of how not to manage crisis comms in an age of digital engagement.

There’s a basic rule of thumb in any crisis situatioj like this – the first thing is to say sorry and the second thing is to say sorry again. That at least appears to be a lesson that’s been learned by United’s management as every company rep on the analyst conference call yesterday fell over themselves to emphasise how very, very sorry they were about the whole situation. It’s almost as though someone had tutored them!

While Munoz, whose inept performance last week belied his status as PR Week US’s Communicator of the Year, opened the conference call, he played a remarkably – perhaps wisely – low key part in proceedings, leaving the bulk of analyst questioning to President Scott Kirby, who, of course, began by telling everyone how sorry he was:

Our entire leadership team and the entire airline is focused on learning from this terrible event and making United truly customer-focused in everything that we do.

The objective yesterday was less about communicating with the wider audience of current or potential United customers and more about calming the nerves of Wall Street investors in order to prevent a repeat of last week’s billion dollar+ scalping that the company’s stock took as the firm failed to contain its social media chaos.

So it was that Kirby was keen to assure analysts that the high-spending corporate accounts that are so important to all US airlines aren’t too distressed by what’s happened:

We had a lot of communication with our corporate accounts, and we’ve had appropriate questions and concerns, particularly with regard to our corporate accounts, with whom we have a good relationship and we’ve already communicated with. We feel pretty good about the communications that we’ve had so far and in our ability to reassure them and explain things like overbooking.

In fact, he added, while United intends to announce to the whole world what it plans to do to ensure no repetition of the incident last week, it’s made a special effort to keep the corporates happy. That’s a tricky one to manage image-wise – we’ve made a special effort to talk to the big spenders in the corporate travel departments before the fare-paying Chinese doctors in economy?

But Kirby insisted:

We feel like we’ve managed that pretty well. And our corporate accounts are largely supportive. They want us to fix this. They want us to do the right thing. But they believe in us and believe that we will get this fixed. And at the end of the day, we will be stronger, and we will have better customer service when we get through this.

The other key constituency that got air time yesterday was the lucrative Chinese market, up in arms on social media last week due to Dr Dao’s ethnicity. This too has been an issue for United with CEO Munoz going to visit with the Chinese Consulate to discuss the situation and planning meetings with government officials in China when he visits there in a week or two.

Buck stopping

As for Munoz himself, the apologies on show yesterday were considerably more honed than the initial statements last week:

The incident on Flight 3411 has been a humbling, learning experience for all of us here at United and for me, in particular. In addition to apologizing to Dr. Dao as well as all the passengers aboard, I also want to apologize to our customers. You can and should expect more from us and as CEO, I take full responsibility for making this right.

We’ve always sought to repay our customers’ trust with the highest quality of service and deepest level of respect and dignity. We are and will make the necessary policy changes to ensure this never happens again… We are looking at a broad array of issues that affected not only that situation or our broader customer experience.

While details of the full “more common-sense approach to how we do things” have to wait until the end of the month before being revealed, Munoz did commit to no longer using law enforcement officer to remove passengers from planes and insisting that United crew members traveling as passengers on a plane would have to be booked in at least an hour prior to departure.

While the first action might have prevented the distressing images all over the internet that have haunted United for the past week, the second would have done nothing to change the fact that the flight was full and a legitimate passenger would have to be bumped. From a messaging point of view, there’s work to be done there.

As for Munoz’s own position as CEO, he’s still insistent that he’s going nowhere and mea maxima culpa only goes so far:

The buck stops here, and I’m sure, there was lots of conjecture about me personally. I think I’ve met with the board and the board has met independently and we’ve had fulsome conversations that I’ll be involved in some of that work that we’re doing, going forward as well as they always have been. I have issued the letter of support, but…again it was a system failure across various areas. So no, there was never a consideration for firing an employee or anyone around it.

My take

The goal was to keep Wall Street calm and on side and get this unpleasantness behind them, so did United’s management achieve this?

Well, consider this comment from an analyst at Barclays in relation to the deliberate and forceful ejection of and physical assault on a fare-paying passenger:

Accidents happen.

This is an audience that really needed to believe that things have calmed down. United’s executives were playing to a friendly audience yesterday. Whether the wider customer base is inclined to give them such an easy ride remains to be seen. The release of the results of the ‘what went wrong and what we’re going to do about it’ review at the end of the month will reignite attention on the issue. Whether United has learned enough from its social media mauling to manage this next phase with appropriate customer service for a digital age is far from certain.

Image credit - Freeimages.com

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    1. I have noticed big corporations have started to use complete disdain for its customers. Not just this incident but across the board. Corporations have a “grab” attitude and are quickly loosing patience and politeness to customers. They are forgetting what was the norm and becoming much more aggressive.