1493611700176 - Cas Carter: Avoiding United’s PR nightmare

Cas Carter: Avoiding United’s PR nightmare

OPINION: I’m delighted United Airlines has indicated they are not going to beat up their passengers any more.

Late last week, following what PR commentators are calling the worst PR catastrophe in recent times, United announced it would review its procedures for overbooking and throwing paying customers off flights. 

The month-long saga saw chief executive Oscar Munoz make four attempts to defend, and then apologise, for airline staff dragging a Vietnamese doctor off a plane – breaking his nose and smashing some teeth in the process. 

Initially Munoz claimed the customer was belligerent. But the chief executive forgot that other passengers had the ability to film and instantly post the customer mauling.

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United quite rightly took a mauling too. 

A worldwide social media storm ensued: the story trended number one on Chinese social media site Weibo, there were calls to boycott the airline, United stocks took a hit and the US government called for a review. 

This week the saga continues when Munoz testifies at Capitol Hill to answer questions about passenger relationships, particularly the overbooking policy.

The weasel words from Munoz’s initial statement were full of jargon and clearly influenced by legal advice.  

He talked about trying to “re-accommodate these customers” and asking them to “deplane”.  The chief executive said he would “reach out” to the customer concerned.

Jargon is always nauseating, but after such a massive faux pas, surely customers deserved a more human response. 

It took two days for the airline to apologise and two more efforts to respond appropriately. 

Last week, United announced an undisclosed pay-out to the customer plus a formal email to United loyalty customers about overbooking policy changes.

For the first-time the airline responded authentically.

Munoz said the review signalled a culture shift toward becoming more customer-focused. 

It says a lot about the airline that, at a time when ”customer-centricity” is the marketing buzzword, it had to state that customers should be at the centre of everything they do.

United says it will cut down on overbooking and make sure it’s involuntarily bumping as few customers as possible.

Call me naïve, but I’m still slightly amazed that if I book and pay for a flight to a destination, I’m not guaranteed to get there (weather permitting).  

Munoz talks about a change in culture. Clearly, he’s got a big job ahead of him, if the current culture allows for thuggery of paying passengers.

So, I am nervous about United’s guarantee that employees will now be empowered to resolve customer service issues at the time, if previous staff directed this debacle.

And, given its track record, I would like more detail into what constitutes a “safety and security” issue which the airline now says is the only time customers would be tossed off a plane.

How badly has the event effected a company that been far from devoid of PR disasters?

The first month after the incident will surely be added to PR seminars as a case of what not to do.

If customers can complain instantly, then you’ve little time to respond, even if it’s just a holding statement until you check facts.  United did not.

But United will weather this storm. Passengers will continue to look for cheap fares and Americans’ expectations of airlines are so low, they’ll welcome any improvement. 

Or course, United is the only carrier for some destinations. 

And strangely the issue has also highlighted that the airline is filling its seats which must be good news for investors.

A final irony: only a month before the incident, PRWeek awarded Munoz a ”Communicator of the Year” award for his work to “better engage with employees and customers,” demonstrating “outstanding communication skills” under pressure.

Cas Carter is a marketing and communications specialist.