Flying high to an emergency landing – 3 lessons United can teach us about communications

One month you’re flying high, named PR Week's communicator of the year for being a "smart, dedicated and excellent leader who understands the value of communications”, the next you find yourself in the midst of a communications crisis where your company and personal reputation are under fire. Just a day in the life of United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz.

This week videos emerged on social media after a passenger was forcibly removed from his seat. His flight from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked and he had been randomly selected to disembark the flight. After refusing to go, Chicago Transport Authorities were called until the situation escalated.

There was public outcry, leaked internal emails, and a backlash against, what many considered, a lacklustre apology.

Big airlines don’t have the greatest of reputations at the best of times and United have had their own challenges in the past (remember the leggings incident a few weeks ago or that song about a guitar?) but I think there are three reasons United found itself in stormy weather.

“Computer says no”

The genesis of this incident happened before anyone got on the plane. United needed to transport four staff members to Louisville and counted on its overbooking system to offer up the space. These systems are designed to maximise profits by mitigating against no shows. They overbook passengers for a flight and offer incentives for customers to change their flight if everyone turns up.

On an overbooked flight scenes like this are rare, usually people miss the flight or volunteers take compensation to change, but in exceptional cases staff have protocols and guidelines to fall back on. One thing I can guarantee any business leader is that systems will fail, eventually. In this case, those little used protocols are what got United into this mess.

When these protocols and procedures were created I doubt the reputational impact they will have on customers, staff, suppliers or anyone else were considered. The end result gave United procedures that sound great in principle but don’t always work out well in practice.

Also let's not forgot that the very reason why these procedures were put in place was because United needed to put four members of staff on the flight. Although a legitimate decision, United’s process put its need over those of its customers.

In hindsight it's likely Mr. Munoz would gladly pay the cost of a few members of staff missing a flight over the crisis it faces today.

Taking it on the chin

After the video went viral, Mr. Munoz issued a private email to all staff on the matter before a public statement. But today no email is really private.

Yet given Mr. Munoz’s communications pedigree you would think he’d be able to get the right balance between reassuring staff (as they were only following procedure) and taking on the responsibility to understand why things escalated so quickly.

It’s a hard line to walk and the leaked email failed to hit the mark. To many he sounded quick to defend his staff and bizarrely seemed to suggest that the passenger was to blame for his reaction.

For most of us flying isn’t a joy, it’s a means to an end and for some it’s a nightmare. So is it a surprise that the passenger in this case demanded to keep the seat he had paid for?

Sometimes you have to take it on the chin. Yes, United was within its rights to do what it did but Mr. Munoz needed to ask could, and should, it have done better?

Hiding behind language

When United eventually made its official statement things went from bad to worse.

By using language that would never appear in any other context, it seemed to be defending its practices and shrugging off the incident as entirely normal:


“Re-accommodate” is the issue here. It’s the kind of word I expect to see when a zoo moves an animal to a new home or in the pages of Orwell’s 1984. In this context it screams of legal jargon, business procedures and a company that is covering its tracks, not one that is taking responsibility for its actions.

Apologies will be heavily scrutinised, and they are never perfect, but in the case of United, this one came across as insincere because it was hiding behind jargon instead of taking responsibility.

In the end United quickly issued a much better apology but for many it got lost in the reaction to the first.

So in short there are three takeaways we can all use to build better reputations:

  • Look at procedure, protocols or systems and consider the reputational impact when things fail and how treating the needs of our stakeholders is key.
  • Take responsibility for actions and accept when there is no-one to blame.
  • Don’t hide behind language – be open about the facts and what you mean.

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