Gini Dietrich

United Airlines: When a Crisis Means it’s Time to Fire the Client

By: Gini Dietrich | April 12, 2017 | 

United Airlines Crisis CommunicationsIt’s really easy to armchair quarterback, isn’t it?

Those of us who live in glass houses.

All of that.

We become very, very good at it, particularly when Pepsi or Sean Spicer or United Airlines do something wrong.

And that was all just in one week!

At the same time, the forthcoming Big Question is about what constitutes an apology in crisis communications, which has made for great Twitter conversations this week.

Non-Apology, Apology

And this?

This first statement from Oscar Munoz the CEO of United Airlines, over a man being forcibly dragged off a flight on Sunday night, does not constitute an apology:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.

I know people who work in the communications department at United.

The airlines also are represented by Edelman, which has professionals who know what they’re doing when it comes to crisis communications.

The two are very smart and very savvy.

They know how to craft a real apology.

This smacks of not involving their communications counsel at all or, worse, not listening to them.

A Day Too Late

This “apology” came yesterday, but hours later he sent a letter to employees lauding the behavior of the flight crew.

He said the passenger was “disruptive and belligerent” and the flight crew did exactly as they should.

He credited employees with following established procedures.

Under intense fire, Munoz apologized a second time yesterday afternoon for his initial response and email to employees.

That apology was more in line with what should have been released on Monday.

April 11, 2017

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.

I promise you we will do better.



Comparatively, Crisis Communications Handled Well

I’d like to compare this with the way Southwest Airlines handled their power outage crisis last July.

During the course of four days, Southwest posted eight updates on their community blog.

In every update, they included photos and videos of what they were doing to fix the issue.

They even said things such as:

It’s never too early to say thank you or to extend an apology; neither is it to continually apologize when a situation hasn’t been fully resolved. I’m sorry. We’ll continue to work to make this right.


Make no mistake, Southwest created this problem.

Though it wasn’t an operational or policy issue, it was an issue that could have been avoided—and they owned that.

They were updating their community blog and they had multiple Facebook Live videos during the crisis timeframe.

We are all human. We make mistakes. Things go awry. It’s how we handle ourselves that makes the difference.

Look at the difference between how the two airlines handled themselves.

It’s Imperative Communications Have a Seat at the Table

When you have an operational policy that can create this kind of trauma, crisis communications counsel HAS to be brought in.

Imagine the crisis communications planning session where they could have reviewed these policies.

Surely someone would have said, “What happens if we have to forcibly remove someone from a plane?”

You prepare for that.

There is one thing that drives me crazy about this, though: This is not a PR issue.

It’s operational issue.

It’s a leadership issue.

It becomes a PR problem when the CEO either puts more weight on what general counsel says or he doesn’t listen to his crisis communications counsel.

The attorney’s job is to protect him in a court of law. A communicator’s job is to protect in the court of public opinion.

As my friend Abbie Fink says:

Crisis communications professionals must be at the table when decisions are being made.  We can provide an objective opinion and guide discussions around the possible outcomes of those decisions.  Trust me; you want us there beforehand, because you are going to definitely need us after.

Is it Time to Fire the Client (or Quit Your Job)?

So then comes the time when you, as a communications professional, have to decide if you are going to continue working with an organization, either as an employee or as an outsourced partner.

If you are even invited to sit at the table (and most often we are not), are you able to work through scenarios where the operational policy could backfire?

Does the CEO listen to what you have to say?

Do you have a great working relationship with general counsel?

Can you get statements approved fairly rapidly (within the hour)?

Do you have freedom to respond directly to angry customers on social without days of approvals?

Is your counsel trusted?

If you answer “no” to any of these questions, though we all try to close—and keep—more clients, it may be time to fire your client, or quit your job.

What do you think?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Totally agree that they should have used video at some point – even the lame, after the fact apology yesterday might have more impact if visual vs. text sent to media outlets. Remorse does help which your crisis communicators know (and know how to craft).

  • Susan Stoga

    I said this to a client yesterday – I only work with clients who listen to my counsel. I know United has great PR people, and if the client isn’t going to listen, or even ask for counsel, then there is no reason to continue the relationship. Someone needs to go.

    • I would be banging my head up against the wall. Multiple times.

      • Susan Stoga

        Nancy Davis (above, hit the nail on the head) apology came when stock dropped. What did Munoz think would happen?

        • As you know, it’s hard to get leadership to listen in cases like this. He likely also has attorneys talking in his ear about how he can’t apologize because that’s admitting guilt. It’s a big, fat mess.

  • Nancy Davis

    As someone who has watched this unfold, I am dumbfounded by their lack of compassion and human decency. I am planning my honeymoon and will pay additional money to not use them. They only apologized once their stock started to lose value.

    • Watching the video is horrendous and I also think what they’re doing now, digging into his past, is awful. If that happened to me, I would not budge. Possession is 9/10 of the law. They would have had to forcibly remove me, too. It’s the principle of the matter. And what would they do? Dig into how we almost went bankrupt during the Great Recession? It’s horrible.

      • Nancy Davis

        When I got hit by that car, the defense started digging into my life. Fun times. They even took video of Frank and I slow dancing at one of his gigs, because clearly, if I can dance, I must not be that injured. Lawyers giving advice on these things never helps.

        • I remember! I also remember being in Paris when the nut job called me to say you’d had an accident. Four years ago. That was a looooong time to get through that.

  • That’s the most unbelievable thing in these crises. You know these companies have smart communications counsel (not “council” as in the quote tweet — I know, pedantic!) — people that are at the top of their game. Oy.

    I’m hearing someone on TV at this moment saying that the problem was Munoz was initially talking to his employees, which has been a big priority for the company. As he said, though, the idea that you can have different messages for different audiences is beyond outdated in this transparent world.

    • You are preaching to the choir about the “council” (see image).

      I can totally understand wanting to talk to your employees and show you have their back. But you also have to provide leadership when something went horribly wrong. Publicly blaming first Chicago PD, then the aviation officers, then the non-apology…and now digging up dirt on the guy. Makes me shake my head.

    • All crises are almost always self inflicted. And Comm can make it worse or better. This was self inflicted. A bad business model. Under paid employees. A culture that puts profits over customers and their experience.

      Personally had the CEO done the right apology not sure many United Fliers would believe it was sincere. Obviously NO ONE feels it is sincere today…but at least they had a chance to win over the non-fliers like me who haven’t been flying for a few years. Had you mentioned United in 2001-2010 when I flew a lot I would of had nothing good to say about United.

      This crisis was the result of years and years of culture building leading to this event.

  • Been armchair quarterbacking this for sure. Easy for us (as you so eloquently stated, in our glass houses 😉). However, I know it’s REALLY bad when my husband (who doesn’t really understand our industry and abhors watching the news), comments “What the hell were they thinking? Oh, this isn’t going to be good”, that’s when I know for sure!

    Thanks for sharing perspective, Gini, as typically these incidences are only symptoms of a much bigger issue.

    • That’s a SUPER way to know if someone has gone off the rails. It’s so frustrating because you KNOW their communications counsel is banging their heads up against the wall.

    • paulakiger

      Sadly, my husband is the contrarian in almost every story like this (including this one). SIGH. One factor that has fascinated me in the whole public discourse is the focus on him being a doctor. While that IS relevant as far as the hypothetical “poor” patients the next morning, it also doesn’t matter if he was a chimney sweep, nuclear physicist, brain surgeon, or unemployed whatever. Just a thought that keeps going through my head. It also reminded me of jury selection – I have seen doctors told “too bad about your patients — the law prevails over their needs.” Craziness.

      • I AGREE. We all have reasons to get home, which is WHY WE PAID FOR THE TICKET.

  • Mike Connell

    Horror and incredulity aside (if that’s possible after watching the video), what’s the strategy going forward if you’re the AOR? On one hand, there’s the simple human decency component. You just don’t treat people that way, regardless of your policies. On the other, it seems that this is yet another “confusing policy” that has put the airline in hot water (see “After Barring Girls for Leggings, United Airlines Defends Decision” So, perhaps, education should be high on the list of to-do items? Although both of these incidents still scream a lack of common sense, rather than a need for a better understanding of policy.

    • I know if we were agency of record, we’d be having a serious conversation internally about whether to keep the client. At this point, it’s reputational for all involved. And, as much as I want to rule the world, taking a client’s money when they won’t listen to us is not OK with me.

      I saw an interesting LinkedIn post about how this affects United, Edelman (AOR), and PRWeek (just named Munoz communicator of the year). I’ll find it for you.

        • Mike Connell

          Interesting. I can’t believe PRWeek would join that conversation without addressing that award. I’d also love to be a fly on the wall during the discussions between Edelman and United. Based on the results and actions to date, I picture Munoz with his fingers in his ears, stomping up and down shouting “la-la-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you!”

          • We worked with a very large retailer and they were being sued for discrimination (and the guy definitely had a case). It was astounding to sit in the room and listen to the reasons why they were going to deny, deny, deny. And heaven forbid ever apologizing. We ended up resigning the account right in the middle of it all.

  • The United CEO only became faux contrite when the share prices took a hit for $1 billion – his true feelings came out in that email to employees about how clearly the passenger was at fault because of his belligerence.

    This is what happens when companies become monopolies – they don’t feel they have to toe the line, they’ll still be used by people needing the service they sell.

    Given that the US is about to hit a dramatic downturn in tourism because of the Trump effect, the likes of United need all the internal passengers they can fly to make up for international losses and connections.

    Looks like they’re keen on messing that up too. Screw them.

    • I’m also really upset about how they’re dragging the guy and his past through the mud. As I said internally, I don’t care if he’s Jeffrey Dahmer. He paid for his seat. He was already seated. He should not have been forcibly removed. And I would have done the same thing, had I been in his position. And you can bet, the moment someone laid hands on me, I would become belligerent.

      • Today being close to 1787 France, 1917 Russia with the massive inequality in the US and potential for a huge rise up by the poor to take down the 1%….the 1% keep doing the shittiest most arrogant things pretty much showing they deserve to have their assets stripped by the mob and them hung by trees. Because this CEO doesn’t really imo deserve his pay or his position vs maybe working as a janitor in a factory. He came across like a little piece of crap. As sadly so many CEO’s do. Most. Not just some. Most behave this way.

        • And to clarify since I know I sounded harsh because you are mostly focused with helping these people communicate properly in an accountable way….after a company shows a major lack in ethics/morals while not lacking in greed.

          This company 1] purposefully over books flights expecting no shows. 2] if all show they expect to be able to inconvenience customers for a price/bribe. 3] Decided in this case they had to forcibly remove a passenger because it is a] their plane b] their profits and costs associated with their own operational/scheduling failure out weighed the respect that should be given to all passengers who this company just views as cattle.

          Meaning instead of saying ‘Shit we messed up and will have to eat the problem lets let our customers bare the brunt of our error’.

          4] Then the CEO defends his company culture. Which is scary because he got low paid workers to act this way. Makes me scared with Trump in power. You would think someone would of prevented this from happening but the diffusion of responsibility gets good people to behave in at worst apathy/inaction (like people not helping a person who has a heart attack because others are around) to worst riots.

      • +1

  • Edward M. Bury

    Thank you for sharing this perspective. Only those behind the scenes know the factors behind United’s communications management of this issue, which now has grown into a sustained crisis that will take perhaps months to mitigate. Perhaps sound strategies and tactics were recommended but ignored. I find it inaccurate to label this and other stupid or careless acts as “PR disasters.” No, it was an operational disaster that generated an extreme amount of negative publicity and social media traffic.

    • I agree, EB! It’s definitely NOT a PR disaster. PR didn’t cause this. Their policy did.

  • paulakiger

    I’m glad you wrote about this, Gini — among what I am sure will be a FLOOD of United post-event processing, I knew you would bring clarity and a unique perspective. If anyone is interested in the dry legal part of United’s “contract of carriage,” here’s some background:

    • Here is my issue with it: “may deny boarding on oversold flights after volunteers are sought.”

      They sought volunteers. They had no takers. They didn’t deny boarding. The guy was sitting in his paid-for-seat. And it wasn’t oversold. They were taking people off the plane for four employees.

      • paulakiger

        Totally and utterly agree.

  • Bill Smith

    United doesn’t have a PR crisis, though that is at the end result, they have a deep organizational culture crisis from the board of directors right on down to the part time ticket agent at the check in counter at the departure level. This has been festering for years. United is just a symptom of a bigger problem where travellers are fed up of being treated like parrot droppings by the industry. I just finished listening to the latest Scott Stratten UnMarketing podcast that covered the issue in depth:

    • Oh, I’ll have to listen!

      • Bill Smith

        It’s good Gini, I think it hits the nail on the head. There was even a blog post from a pilot’s wife defending the airline’s behaviour and blaming the victim. Yes I know United has truly and awful to the core organizational culture, you know what, they kinda forget, we the flying public do pay their salaries.

        • Weird. I seem to think an organization exists to serve its customers. Not the other way around.

        • paulakiger

          I read that pilot’s wife blog post.

  • It’s an operational issue. It’s a leadership issue. This is exactly the premise of an article/podcast I’m working on about this topic.

    And to this I’ll add my take: It’s a customer experience issue.

    Bringing in outsiders to manage situations with your customers is a surefire way to create problems (like this).

    • Uh. Yeah. And the blame game. Holy cow!

      • Exactly. Falling back on “the rules” is BS. These situations are evidence that your rules suck and you need to change them to create a more favorable customer experience.

        • In this case, it’s evident they put their employees first. I also hate the smear campaign created around the guy. I would have done the same thing he did. It doesn’t matter who he is or what is in his past. He bought a seat. He was seated.

          • I would have too — and did – when SW said it would take me 3 or 4 days to get from Phoenix to Chicago. I had two paid speaking gigs in Toronto and Nashville during that time period so I made it happen. And that’s what I thought about when I first saw the UA video. The rules need to change. Make the airlines pay $2500 for every bump and things will change. That’s the good I hope comes out of this.

          • The moment they asked the passenger to deplane because they needed to give his seat to employee an employee, they told the world they are an “employee first, customers don’t matter” company.

  • This is a tough one. The problem all big companies have besides lack of speed and empowerment to handle such situations, I pretty much feel the companies are powerless to change public opinion no matter what they do today…..vs what they have done over the next 6 months.

    The media is in control. It doesn’t matter that you do everything right if the media decides to spin this poorly even after you take ownership as a company, you are helpless. Because 99.9% of people who heard about this incident heard from WOM or TV or Digital News and even social media (even though social normally has such small reach without the main stream media).

    As you know I work first hand in a communications laboratory called a restaurant. I paid attention to the days of discussion. Not once did any of the many conversations about this incident did anyone mention the company and their reaction. But what was discussed was

    ‘United sucks they always have not shocked they did this’

    ‘Did you see the horrible way United treated an Asian customer bet if they had been white’

    ‘Many discussions on Airlines over booking since coworkers and customers have been traveling via air (Bahamas, Florida, SC, Aruba, and Yucatan and the normal shitty airport experience in general for all airlines’

    ‘When personal flying craft evolves (it will) no one will shed a tear when those companies disappear.’

    The problem most big companies have leading up to a big negative event is most already have negative views and not the most rosie histories. The number of people who don’t like United or the Airlines in general is huge including most of their regular customers. Even Southwest/JetBlue customers if given a choice to not fly but still get somewhere the same time would ditch them. I remember arguing with Jetblue that while they are best in satisfaction getting barely a B rating by JD powers says a lot about how bad this industry treats their customers (and employees).

    That is a lot of legacy to over come and I am pretty sure there are zero people who hate United more now (because the level of loathing was already so deep) and I bet 99% of people have no idea or care how United reacted.

    So…..quite a comm pickle Ms Gini.

    • I just saw that the communications department at United reports to the HR department…not to the leadership team. So that’s a HUGE part of this issue.