Crisis management and travel PR: Where now for United?

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In recent weeks the Smoking Gun PR blog has had plenty of travel PR content. Maybe it’s the time of year, with many Britons who haven’t done so well in advance now scrambling to get their summer holiday plans in firmly in place. Perhaps it’s the ABTA Crisis Management Communications seminar we’re sponsoring in Manchester next month.

Either way, it’s rather fitting that this week has given us one of the most shocking examples of a travel PR crises anyone in this office can recall from recent memory. Worse still, it comes from an airline that’s no stranger to controversy- it was only a fortnight ago when we included the brand in our round up of crisis fails and management success stories, sadly in the former category, after passengers related to crew members were refused boarding due to their attire.

At the time United- the carrier in question- was unapologetic, explaining that it’s company policy for anyone representing the firm to wear suitable clothing (in this case not leggings). That may be fair enough, but our criticisms were more concerned with how long it took the airline to confirm why they asked the passengers to change their outfits, and reassure those who don’t have relatives working for the company that they can get on a flight wearing leggings.

But wait, there’s more

All of which pales into insignificance when compared with what happened last Sunday. A video has been circulated online of a doctor, David Dao, being forcibly removed from a United flight, apparently bloodied from being assaulted by cabin crew. The company’s CEO Oscar Munoz has stood by his staff, claiming their actions were in line with procedure and the passenger was being belligerent and disruptive. Unfortunately for United, eyewitnesses disagree.

Needless to say, the furore has been widespread with outrage everywhere from social media to the press. An already poor reputation- when compared with other airlines- has been further sullied. Begging the question, can it get much worse?

It gets worse

The answer, perhaps amazingly, is yes, and very quickly. Since then reports have emerged about another passenger, Geoff Fearns, 59, who was threatened with handcuffs after refusing to disembark another flight that was overbooked after it was explained to him that a ‘higher priority’ customer had arrived and needed the seat.

Airlines have had a policy of overbooking for as long as we can remember, relying on the inevitability that some will miss their flight. This may sound unfair, but realistically the competitive pricing of air fares would be impossible without this, and so in many ways you can argue we all gain in the long run.

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What’s remarkably about United is the attitude that comes with requests for passengers to give up seats. Under no circumstances should customers be treated with contempt, and this is before we come to mention the accusations of physical abuse. Or indeed the prospect of being escorted from a flight in cuffs.

This all raises a very serious question- just how can United douse the flames of this rather widespread PR wildfire. So far the response has been denial that any wrongdoing has occurred. But whilst this protectionist attitude may be good for the company’s chances of arguing its case- the actions were apparently textbook- it’s terrible within the context of reputations.

What would you do?

Customers are not necessarily always right, with plenty of examples of air rage and general disruptive behaviour from less savoury passengers. However, given the wider situation- both Dao and Fearns were removed due to overbooking- this approach to the public and media simply won’t do. It’s not the fault of the passengers that more tickets were sold than seats were available, and therefore an apology would be the right way to go about things.

Dao has already begun legal action, which isn’t surprising, and protests have been staged in the U.S., with a campaign on SumOfUs.org calling for Munoz to resign. So what would you advise as a public relations professional? Or what would you do as a business owner faced with a similar situation?

Why not let us know via the comments form below, or on Twitter- @SmokingGunPR– as we’re interested to know. If one thing is clear, though, the resulting viral content has been hilarious- trust the internet every time to make a few good jokes at the expense of a PR fail. Here are a few prime examples:

United airlines these days - Imgur

 

Recently surfaced United Airlines training video - Imgur

 

Flying United Airlines - Imgur

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