United Airlines Controversy: How Not to Respond to a PR Disaster

When a passenger was violently removed from a United Airlines flight weeks ago, the internet fought back with angered words and skewering critiques of the industry as a whole. This wasn’t helped by United’s noncommittal and flippant response to the controversy—but the company eventually came around.

What’s the bottom line? How will this PR disaster affect United moving forward? Finally, what can we learn from this situation? Let’s dissect it and find out!

How the United Airlines Controversy Began

The situation began by flight staff asking customers to give up their seats for compensation in return. When not enough volunteered, the airline resorted to choosing passengers randomly. When Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat because he had patients to meet the following day, flight staff called in security to have him forcibly removed.

Security violently removed Dao from his seat, resulting in a visibly bloodied mouth, a broken nose and a minor concussion. Passengers caught the scuffle on video, which was then shared on social media. The story went viral throughout the day and the following weekend.

While there was debate on whether Dao was entitled to his seat, the consensus on social media seemed to be that there was no need for use of force. Enraged users took to Twitter and Facebook to criticize both United Airlines and airport police for mishandling the situation.

Fueling the PR Disaster

The drama didn’t stop there. United CEO Oscar Munoz responded to the controversy with a public statement that was without a touch of sympathy—or even acknowledgment of the rough treatment experienced by the elderly passenger. It was especially tone-deaf response from the CEO named “Communicator of the Year” by PRWeek.

That was enough to get Twitter riled up, but matters got worse when Munoz sent a letter to employees giving his uncensored thoughts on the situation. In his internal email, Munoz laid blame on Dao and called him “disruptive and belligerent.” This angered critics even more, prompting Munoz to pull a total 180 the following day and apologize profusely.

How Will United’s Online Reputation Affect Them?

It’s important to remember that the overall controversy regards not just the passenger removal, but also the company’s response to criticism against it. While the events may not have too negative an effect on United’s sales, the drama has certainly harmed the company’s public image.

The fact of the matter is, a poor reputation can embolden critics and create consumer bias against you. This in turn may cause a scandal to snowball and extend into further issues. For example, just a week after Dr. Dao was forcibly removed from his flight, a bride and groom were removed from a United flight en route to their wedding party, which also made headlines.

The airline felt justified in this, saying the couple repeatedly tried to change seats after being told not to. Meanwhile, the two said they only tried once—and stopped after they were told not to, only to be removed anyway. Regardless of who’s right in this classic case of he-said-she-said, it’s easy for consumers to spin this against United given the situation a week before. In fact, this recent case probably wouldn’t have even made the news if it weren’t for the PR disaster that had occurred before.

Therefore, reputation management—and listening to your customers—is essential.

Protect Your Online Reputation

When a social media crisis occurs, every second counts. You must act swiftly to draft a statement, and must listen to your community and customers while they air their grievances. Finally, your statement must respond directly to the points they make and problems they raise. This is because you want the public to know that you’re listening to them.

With Smart Moderation, you can protect your reputation and monitor your community in the event of a social media crisis or PR disaster. Our comment moderation tool erases comments from trolls almost instantly, removing a great deal of work for your team. This allows you to focus your time and energy on reading and responding to negative engagement when every second counts.

But don’t wait to become embroiled in a PR disaster before you act. Check out our guide to creating a social media crisis plan so you can be prepared.