On April 9, 2017, videos emerged on social media of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight set to depart from Chicago to Louisville. The airline tagged a few passengers to be pulled from the plane to accommodate United staff. These individuals needed to travel to their next job location. The man refused to vacate his seat, stating he was a doctor and had patients waiting on him.

The cellphone videos show the man screaming as officers drag him from his seat, his face hitting an armrest. Later videos show him with blood on his face and speaking incoherently.

That passenger was Dr. David Dao, 69 years old. His lawyer later released a statement that he suffered a broken nose, lost two front teeth, and had a concussion and various other issues. The result for United has been a news and social media firestorm that caused United to lose around $250 million in stock value in a matter of days.

An Unsatisfactory Response

When the entire world seems to be angry at you, the best response probably isn’t to call your customer belligerent. But that is what United CEO Oscar Munoz did. He has since changed his tune. Perhaps it was the videos of the incident, the injuries Dr. Dao sustained or the negative publicity run amuck. Whatever the reason, United has since modified its policies and says it will no longer let crew take the place of passengers on overbooked flights where the passengers are already seated.

When consumers are unhappy with some aspect of a company, common sense would dictate that the best place to start is with an apology and a promise to get to the bottom of the issue at hand.

Munoz’s initial response was unsatisfactory to those who saw the video and the level of force exerted. He did not correctly gauge the how aggravated the public is with airline policies on overbooked flights.

The Secondary Response

United’s secondary response was much more measured. It later issued an apology. Munoz has since called the incident an “upsetting event.” He went on to apologize for having to re-accommodate the passengers to other flights.

The secondary response from United is a better example of the first step a company should take when a crisis occurs. Apologize for any inconvenience and promise to look into the issue and get back with an answer.

United may not have known all the details initially. And perhaps the passenger’s refusal to comply with officers was also not a good response. However, to immediately jump to blaming the passenger was not a smart move on United’s part.

In an interview, Andrew Gilman with a crisis communications firm, stated that the biggest issue United has to overcome is rebuilding trust. Passengers rely on the ability to get from point A to point B at a predetermined time. If they know they can’t rely on that, then travel with United becomes more risky than with other airlines, at least in theory.

Next Steps

Gilman goes on to state that the company needs to show it is sincere in its efforts to improve travel for passengers. There are some specific steps that United, and other companies, can take to rebuild trust once it is broken.

United should:

  • Keep a handle on social media and know what is going on. Information online travels at the speed of light and the faster you know what is being said about your company, the better you can respond.
  • Correct any inaccuracies, but in a professional way. Don’t point the finger at the passenger or be belligerent. United should have apologized for the rough handling of the passenger. And then assured customers they were looking into all aspects of the situation.
  • Apologize to consumers. Saying you are sorry about a situation does not equal an admission of guilt in a court of law. It can show your target demographic that you care and can appease them a bit.
  • Take a look at the complaints passengers have. If United had spent a few minutes looking at the complaints people were posting online, it could have better used the opportunity to gain customers instead of losing them.

An example of a crisis that was handled well can be seen in the corn industry. High fructose corn syrup was vilified as one of the unhealthiest foods known to man. Suddenly, consumers avoided this product like the plague and sales were plummeting.

That’s when corn farmers came together with the food industry to rebrand this inexpensive sweetener. They chose to rename the product, and it is now listed as either corn sugar or simply fructose. It’s underhanded, but this complete rebranding approach has helped them regain market share.

When it comes to United, it wouldn’t want to overbook a flight and call it something different. Consumers are smarter than that — and that little trick will likely eventually catch up with the corn industry for the same reason. Instead, United should take a look at the reasons why consumers are upset. They should ask some tough questions about how the industry as a whole can improve.

The Bottom Line

The best course of action would be to change policies quickly. This should avoid the same type of incident in the future. Then, it has to communicate those changes to consumers and work to rebuild trust that has been lost.

Eventually, the joke memes about United will die down, as other news takes the place of the incident that occurred with Dr. Dao. With a lot of time and effort, United may once again be seen as a way to fly the friendly skies. Regrouping and rebranding isn’t easy, but when your brand name has been shattered, it is worth it.

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