It’s Tough to Avoid Negative PR These Days

April has been a rough month for the airline industry. Delta—renowned for its low rate of delays and cancellations—probably saw itself as the pariah of the airline industry after “unprecedented” weather hit its main hub in the Atlanta metro and caused the cancellation of thousands of flights over the course of a few days impacting thousands of customers around the country.

But, then United stepped into the picture and a single incident with a single passenger on a single flight stole the negative publicity spotlight from a likely grateful Delta. Of course we’re talking about Dr. David Dao, the 69-year-old doctor who the entire world saw being dragged screaming off a United Flight by officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Get Your Message Right and Get it Right, Right Away

As wonderfully ironic as it sounds, United CEO Oscar Munoz was recently named “Communicator of the Year” by PR Week. And yet Munoz’s public statements in the aftermath of the incident with Dr. Dao are a perfect example of how not to talk about a PR disaster. As the New York Times lays out nicely in this timeline, Munoz and United baffled the PR world with a string of contradictory and changing messages in response to the incident. From standing by employees, to labeling Dao as “belligerent” to taking “full responsibility,” United struggled to get its message straight. It’s crucial in any PR disaster to get a response out quickly in order to avoid having the narrative framed by those outside your organization. But that doesn’t mean you can shoot from the hip. You need to be careful to get your message right and stick with it.

Always Act Like Someone is Watching. And Recording

Ten or fifteen years ago, we might have read an article that described a passenger being forcefully removed from a plane and thought it sounded excessive. Five people reading the same article might have had five different mental images of what happened after reading the article—all with varying degrees of severity.

However, in today’s world, everyone carries a smartphone equipped with an easy-to-use, high-resolution camera, so now we all get to see exactly what happened. If a picture is worth 1000 words, video is likely worth 100,000—or more.

In this digital age, there’s no way for an offending company to convince its audience of a more favorable version of events when that audience can go online and watch multiple recordings of the incident again and again on demand. The lesson here: companies have to behave, always, as though someone is watching. And recording. Because they probably are.

Your Employees and Even Non-Employee Partners Can Impact Your Brand

To be clear, it wasn’t United employees who manhandled Dr. Dao. But the Chicago Department of Aviation police officers who did were called in at United’s request to remove him from the plane. Who these man handlers worked for made little difference to the millions of horrified viewers who watched the video of his ordeal. United, after all, initiated the interaction. This is a hard lesson for United, and an abject lesson for scores of others. Employees, even non-employees, working at the behest of a company can have a huge impact on the company’s brand, even when you’d never think of them as brand ambassadors.


[Footnote: As we were pulling together this blog post, another airline incident hit the news. An American Airlines employee allegedly hit a female passenger, traveling with a child, with her stroller. And, yes, the incident was captured on video.]


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