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How United Should Have Handled Its Apology

Published: Apr 17, 2017
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Chances are that you’ve heard about Dr. Dao, the man who was violently removed from a United Airlines plane last week after refusing to give up his seat. The resulting video ignited a media storm of backlash, and understandably so – it’s disturbing and hard to watch.

In the aftermath of United Airline’s crisis, there is a lot of blame to go around. Certainly, the policies dealing with overbooking at United (and many other airlines, for that matter) were questionable. Just as certain is that all involved in the incident itself should have used a good bit more common sense before resorting to violence.

There’s no denying those things, but what’s especially interesting to us is the poor manner in which United addressed the situation as the media storm began to spread.

What United Should Have Done Immediately Following the Incident

The biggest mistake that United made following the incident was to delay in offering an empathetic apology. Instead, they issued a statement via Twitter that was incredibly tone-deaf.

United’s CEO Oscar Munoz attempted to distance himself from what had actually happened. It appears that he didn’t realize what an outrage had been caused by the video that was released. He apologized for the passenger’s “inconvenience” when the man was forcibly taken off the plane and received a concussion in the process. That is not “inconvenient”. It is “horrific.”

Admittedly, Munoz was in a tight spot. He didn’t want to throw his own employees or the Chicago police under the bus, so he attempted to minimize the issue. It’s a mistake many companies make in the face of a crisis, and it’s understandable. However, the company’s lack of empathy only added gasoline to the fire of internet backlash. The initial response did not address the horrific event or the injustice done to Dr. Dao – both of which should have been acknowledged immediately.

Munoz should have led with what turned out to be his third attempt at apologizing.

What United Should Do Now

This situation will not go away soon – the video is too graphic, and United’s initial response too subdued. It is a David and Goliath type issue, and both the video of Dr. Dao and the press conference by his family and attorney appeal to the average person. United not only bullied, but seriously injured a man who is 69 years old, a doctor, and someone who bought a ticket and needed to get home. All people who fly can relate to him.

Added to that is the fact that the attorney for Dr. Dao is a very good communicator. He comes across as kind, concerned and trustworthy, and his voice, words and mannerisms are spot on. His handling of the case has undoubtedly increased the level of empathy that the public feels for Dr. Dao.

Because the general view from the public is that United only upped their game when their stock price plummeted, they have lost credibility and trust. Now, they need to focus on regaining it.

They will need to continue to strike the empathetic tone that they finally reached in their third attempt at an apology. The public will also likely want to hear the outcome of the company’s internal reviews. Finally, they’ll be best served by settling with Dr. Dao as quickly as possible. The public will be keeping a close eye on the company’s treatment of Dr. Dao. The longer it takes for the public to perceive that Dr. Dao has been compensated for the horrific incident, the longer United will be under the microscope. Only time will ease the burden on the company’s reputation.

The Bottom Line

At this point, all we can say for sure is that it will be interesting to see how this continues to play out. It seems unlikely to go away anytime soon. However, regardless of any developments, our advice will stand. There is always more to the story. But your voice in the early stages of a media crisis must be compassionate and take ownership of the situation. You must put yourself in the shoes of those watching the information trickle out, and deal with the public outrage accordingly.

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