What Can We Learn From United Airlines Flight 3411

Apr 13, 2017

If you had a goal of demonstrating how NOT to handle crisis communications, you couldn’t find a better template than the actions of United Airlines after a flight crew forcibly removed Dr. David Dao from Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville to accommodate its own need to get four of its employees to Louisville for another flight. It’s definitely cost the airline a lot of goodwill (something most airlines have in short supply already) and could end up costing them hard dollars as passengers stay away from United for a while, either out of protest or fear the same fate could befall them.

In this guest post, James Foster, Director of Marketing and Sales Operations at Amendola Communications client ePatientFinder, looks at what happened, the fallout that’s occurred so far, and what United should have done instead – the real template for handling a crisis. You can read the original post, along with other great ePatientFinder content, here.

In looking at the fiasco that is unraveling for United Airlines, I am reminded of the Stanford Study done back in 2005 that still holds a lot of weight. United would do well to remember the lessons learned, given that, as of this writing, the stock prices are down 4%.

Stanford Graduate School of Business associate professor Larissa Tiedens and her associates studied businesses from 1975 through 1995 and looked at companies that took responsibility for a bad year [or event] and showed they realized better stock performance than firms that blamed external uncontrollable factors. “Only explanations for negative events mattered, but those explanations mattered a lot,” says Tiedens.
Tiedens continues, “Executives who blame external, uncontrollable causes for problems may seem less trustworthy. ”

What does United CEO Oscar Munoz do in the case of #uniteddragspassengergateofftheplane ? He doubles down and blames the victim, calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” He then “blamed” the process and the policy by saying “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”

This is blaming everything but yourself and your company and not really accepting the ownness of the fault, even if the passenger had acted like a jackwagon (do you blame him for over-reacting? [It appears the passenger has had some issues and was previously a doctor but that does not excuse the treatment he received]).

Passengers that talked about the victim show that he was calm and not abusive.

“He was very polite, matter-of-fact,” Powell said. “I could hear pretty clearly. He was acting appropriately annoyed. I was 100% with him I wouldn’t have gotten off the plane either.”

Removal after Boarding
United did what it called “involuntary denial of the boarding process.” Here is the problem, the passengers were already boarded, seated in their plane, and ready to go. Anyway you try to justify it, if words matter, then how do you deny boarding after boarding has already occurred?

Hindsight is 20/20, but is having another flight delayed worse than the PR nightmare that they are dealing with currently? Passengers are used to having canceled flights even last week Delta and Southwest experienced canceled flights, but that’s not what people are talking about today. The narrative today is that passengers would rather have a flight canceled then get a beat down by United. That paints a pretty bad picture.Poor crisis communications can give competitors an advantage

What to do?
The prevailing opinion about “what to do” during a crisis is undoubtedly that the company should own up to what happened and be transparent about the entire situationat least that’s what most customers would tell you. So I’ve compiled a learning list of what to do or what not to do:

  1. Own up to the mistake, and ignore the lawyers (as shown above, defuse it through transparency). If you’re going to get sued, being more transparent and open will weigh into what happens, and usually for the better.
  2. Make things right for the passenger, I mean really right. He took a beating; you owe him for the public embarrassment. I’d go farther and make things right for the other people on the flight subjected to the incident. It may not stop you from getting sued, but it will certainly help your public image.
  3. Admit that your process and policy are flawed, change it, and after the incident subsides, invite the public to participate in the solution if applicable. This is an opportunity to improve and come out the situation stronger for it.
  4. Control the conversation. Right now United has lost total control: On Tuesday, the top trending topic on Twitter in the U.S. was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos, with users suggesting slogans such as “not enough seating, prepare for a beating.”
  5. Don’t release app updates during PR nightmares. Wow really: Drag and drop feature?

Clearly, this situation spiraled out of control. Even the security officers have been suspended because in a time when the public has a massive distrust of the TSA, and airline security over-zealousness, they do exactly what we expect them to do, and over-react. This situation is evolving or really, devolving, on a minute-by-minute basis so only time will tell how United pulls itself out of this PR hole it keeps digging deeper.

[Editorial note: Oscar Munoz has issued a 2nd apology and taken more of the blame. How much damage has been done, again, only time will tell.]

James Foster

James Foster is the Director of Marketing and Sales Operations at ePatientFinder and brings over 17 years in Marketing, HealthIT, and IT to the company. His versatility at companies such as eMDs, Dell, and Georgia Gulf (now Axiall) allow him to guide ePatientFinder's brand across all channels. With an IT-centric background along with marketing, James excels in integrating multiple disciplines and operational guidance for the company. In this role, James oversees the management of ePatientFinder's brand, digital marketing, creative development, marketing effectiveness, social responsibility, PR and media communications. James' focus on blog posts generally covers topics on HealthIT, Marketing and Healthcare, and Security.