Monday, April 17, 2017

How Not to Handle a PR Crisis

Right now, if you do an online search for "United Airlines crisis," more than 1 million results pop up.

That's an indication of how serious a PR crisis United Airlines is facing after forcibly removing a passenger from one of its jets to make room for crew.

The flight from Chicago was fully booked and even offering up to $1,000 in vouchers for future flights didn't bring anyone forward to volunteer. Airline employees said they would have to randomly select passengers to leave the plane.

Three passengers reluctantly agreed when they were asked to leave their seats to make way for United crew members. One refused. And so United's employees brought in the aviation police to forcibly remove the passenger. Things did not go well.

Others on the plane began to video the encounter and post to social media. Soon the entire planet could see how this passenger was being forcibly dragged through the aisle, his face bloody and his body limp. Millions of people viewed and reposted the videos. Many news media posted the videos and their comments. Social media memes popped up in the wake of the incident.

How did United react? Well, despite its stated commitment to customer service (see top), the airline simply didn't do a good job here.

Its CEO didn't know how or when to apologize and try to make things right. At first, he talked about "re-accommodating" the passengers--and that phrase was, of course, widely ridiculed. He then blamed the passenger for being belligerent, which not only contradicted the videos but also made the customer the bad guy in this situation. Wrong.

Finally, the CEO began issuing apologies and saying that all passengers on the plane would receive refunds. By then, United's stock had dropped and even competitors were taking some jabs at the company.

Now all of this is on top of the famous #UnitedBreaksGuitars video, when a musician couldn't get United to pay for a guitar it broke. He wrote a song, did a video, and posted it online. Yes, the hashtag and video went viral. United got the message.

Once again, United Airlines is in the midst of a PR crisis.

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