Poor crisis communication makes airline laughing stock
United Airlines’ shares fell more than 4% in April as outrage over Dr David Dao of Kentucky being dragged off an overbooked flight finally caught up to the stock. The incident, exacerbated by poor communication, meant United’s shares were among the worst performers in the S&P 500. According to Andy Swan of LikeFolio, which monitors social media for financial applications, United’s chief executive Oscar Muñoz poured fuel on the flames with his insensitive and, frankly, misguided attempt to justify his employees’ behaviour. Instead of viewing what transpired on a United plane Sunday evening as a one-off incident, now United’s shareholders are questioning the competence of management in handling crisis scenarios, Swan said, explaining why the stock is starting to drop. “This is an enormous deal for shareholders,” he said. Indeed, at one point more than $900m was wiped off the value of the company, although it has since recovered slightly.
A month is a long time in news terms so here’s a quick recap in case you’ve forgotten the event that grabbed headlines and attracted worldwide derision on talk shows and social media…
An overbooked United Airlines needed to entice four passengers to voluntarily give up their seats to allow crew members on standby to travel on the flight. When a somewhat modest (given the stakes) cash incentive didn’t do the trick, United Airlines resorted to violence to free up a seat, shockingly injuring the passenger concerned. The incident was filmed on a smartphone and the airline has been excoriated on social media ever since for its use of physical force to drag a passenger with a confirmed booking – a doctor no less – off the plane.
In an effort to make the incident go away, CEO apologised for having to “reaccommodate” passengers on the plane and, as if this made the situation better, said his staff had followed “established procedures”. He claimed Dr David Dao, the man dragged from the plane, suffered concussion and now apparently needs reconstructive surgery on his face, “had been asked politely to “deplane” but was “disruptive and belligerent”. No kidding! Surely most of us would be “disruptive and belligerent” if physically manhandled out of a seat we had booked and paid for.
But consider the weasel words the CEO used to whitewash his employees’ overreaction. “Reaccommodate?” The Urban Dictionary now defines this as a euphemistic term for an airline’s decision to “knock out and then drag off unconscious passengers”. As for the little-known “deplane”, even in the US where it is more familiar, this tends to be used by the pilot to invite customers to leave the plane when they arrive at their destination – not to describe kicking a passenger off the flight before it has even taken off. Ironically, this demonstration of poor crisis communications came from the man who had been recognised by PR Week magazine as ‘Communicator of the Year’ only a month earlier.
Oscar Muñoz had a fleeting opportunity to make things right by responding as a human being to a PR nightmare that went viral worldwide on social media but chose to resort to mindless corporate gobbledygook instead. Quite simply, he blew it.