United Airlines: Too Little, Too Late?

United Airlines PR Disaster and Crisis Communications

With so many corporations facing many examples of things that go wrong and how not to respond to them, why do executives continue to drop the ball? Recently, the United Airlines CEO had a chance to step up and demonstrate real leadership this week to handle an overbooked flight. His staff and police operating under United’s orders mistreated a customer and subsequently mishandled the crisis communications immediately afterwards.

Best way to deal with a crisis, put customers first

In the 1980s, the American drug company Tylenol, a division of Johnson & Johnson had a major emergency to resolve. In September 1982, seven people were killed after they consumed aspirin which had been laced with cyanide.

Then CEO, James Burke took the executive decision to immediately form an internal task force to handle the situation. The top priority was to protect consumers. The second priority was to protect the brand.

J&J expeditiously took control of the story and issued a massive recall of 31 million bottles of Aspirin. The recall cost them an estimated USD 100 milliion.

The crime has gone unsolved nearly 4 decades on and yet the impact on the industry is noticeable.

Tamper-resistant and tamper proof containers for drugs sold in the US became the standard. Several years on, Tylenol recovered its position as the leading aspirin brand.

Who dunnit?

Police theorize that the tampering happened in Chicago after the items left the manufacturing chain of custody. Despite the fact that no one was ever caught or convicted, public faith in the company came back when they saw the swift action of the company at work.

In this case, as soon as J&J realized that tampering was happening off-premises, they could have passed the buck and said it wasn’t their problem to solve.

However, they showed true leadership by owning the issue and having open communications. They established toll-free numbers for customers to contact them and had daily updates for the press to raise awareness of situation.

Use today’s technology to your advantage to manage a crisis

In 2011, a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet in Malaysia was at the center of a food contamination nightmare. Several employees had videotaped themselves tampering with food.

The original incident happened around October 2010, but management only began to address the issue in June 2011 when the videos went viral.

KFC Malaysia Responds to Crisis


Similar to Tylenol, management from KFC Malaysia acted adroitly to minimize damage to their reputation. They made it known that cameras had been installed in prep areas and that managers would undergo more intense training.

More importantly, they set up a dedicated Facebook page called “KFC Responds” to handle questions and concerns in real-time. Managing a social media account can be fraught with dangers as netizens can take screenshots or hijack campaigns maliciously.

However, in this case, KFC Malaysia was able to get the public to realize it was an isolated incident and they were taking affirmative steps to ensure food quality and safety.

Their sincerity, and especially the on-camera presence of KFC Malaysia GM, Mohammed Alwi was crucial in showing a genuine concern for public safety and welfare.

The era of Social Media is dialogue, not broadcast

United Airlines faces the dual challenge that 2017 is not 1982. They cannot simply hold press conferences and tell the public their side of the story. There are cell phone videos of the incident making their way around the world that cannot be “unseen”.

In the earliest developments of the story, United management had an opportunity to own the conversation, much like Tylenol. In fact, United had a similar situation since it was local police, and not their own employees who technically manhandled the passenger.

Absent a clear and compassionate message from United Airlines, the public will start to create their own narrative. For example, when it became public that the passenger was Asian American, there began to be more outrage from the Asian American community and even from China.

It wasn’t until a day and a half later that United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz issued a more thorough apology on the matter.

Can United Airlines recover from this PR disaster

The fact of the matter is that the airline industry is very different from other industries. Most operate oligopolies over certain routes. In the United States, certain airlines control the gates at different airports, so you have limited choice in the matter.

Does this mean that airlines can treat customers terribly and get away with it indefinitely? Absolutely not. Industries are disrupted all the time and it’s inevitable that the American airline industry will be shaken up.

United Airlines has taken the first major step in handling the situation positively. They have admitted they made a mistake. Next, they need to aggressively deal with the problem where it started, on social media.

Their executives or head of communications need to address the injured customer and the public at-large with a clear action plan regarding what they did wrong and what policy changes they have implemented to reduce the chances that anything like this ever happens again.