How the Lack of an Effective Crisis Plan Can Lead to a Bigger PR Disaster

Empty cabin of airplane with blue seats and white panel

On Sunday night, United Airlines overbooked flight 3411 from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to Louisville, Kentucky, a common and universally frustrating issue for travelers, which likely already ranks very high on a mile-long list of passenger complaints. After having no success in asking passengers to volunteer to be moved to another flight, the airline did what it apparently thought was the only logical next step: violently remove overbooked passengers from the flight, including having Chicago Department of Aviation officers drag one passenger, Dr. David Dao, off the plane with such force that he was left with a bloodied face.

United Airlines’ response to the incident is a classic example of poor planning for a crisis communications situation. Its first statement after the incident showed no sympathy for the passenger and took no responsibility for his being hurt by officers or the trauma endured by other passengers who witnessed the ordeal and heard his screams. In fact, the statement’s main point was to apologize for overbooking flights and having to re-accommodate overbooked passengers, which deflected entirely from the main issue at hand: a passenger being bloodied while being forcibly removed from a flight. The airline’s second statement, while publicly apologizing to the customer for its treatment of him, was followed up by an internal email by CEO Oscar Munoz to United staff, telling them he stood behind their handling of the situation (which, in case we’ve forgotten, left a passenger with a bloodied face). The lack of a cohesive message indicates how ill-prepared they were for a crisis situation. It also makes United come across as extremely disingenuous.

To add fuel to the fire, the video of the violent incident went viral on social media, a scenario which all companies, large and small, need to be prepared for. With social media, the ability to isolate incidents becomes extremely difficult and the need to contain the situation that much more urgent. United should have been aware of the need to handle the situation correctly in its very first statement.

Although United has a clause in the fine print of its airline ticket contract with each of its passengers that allows the company to overbook flights, its staff is responsible for thoroughly and effectively communicating what that policy entails, and, above all, it is responsible for the physical safety of its passengers and customers. That direction needs to come from Oscar Munoz and United leadership and trickle down to every last employee, and it can only happen when that leadership’s stance is clear and consistent across all channels.

A good public image goes hand in hand with a good approach to customer safety and satisfaction and the effective communication of that approach. It will ultimately come as no shock if United loses customers who are concerned that they will either be subjected to the same treatment as Dr. Dao or have to bear witness to such treatment while on a United flight. The airline should be able to recognize that its customers need to know their safety is not at risk and that they can trust the brand and its staff if they ever again choose to fly United.