How brands can be prepared for a United Airlines-style PR crisis

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It all started in the small hours of Monday morning. Several videos were shared on social media of a man being violently dragged down the aisle of a United Airlines plane. Within hours, the videos had gone viral and undoubtedly the press were on the phone to Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, and his PR team.

Within 24 hours, the story was also the number one trending topic on China’s most popular social media platforms, Weibo and WeChat, over calls of racism. The abused man, David Dao, had been wrongly profiled in reports as being Chinese, when he is in fact American of Vietnamese ethnicity. 

Three days later and this story is still hitting headlines because of the airline’s statements to the press, where they “apologized for the overbooked situation” (but not for mistreating a passenger) and a letter to employees calling Dao “disruptive and belligerent”.

Munoz has since made a second press statement in which he properly apologized. But this was only after the company’s value dropped by over $1 billion in just two days, hundreds of people had taken to social media calling for a boycott of the airline, and China’s two biggest social platforms were up in arms.

Learning from United Airline’s mistakes

A PR crisis like this is every brand’s worst nightmare. But it could have been different if United Airlines had reacted quickly to the first video and therefore had time to prepare a statement and proactively engage the press.

Munoz and his PR team's initial reaction was defensive. Once Munoz had time to see all the videos, judge global reaction, and prepare their second press statement, United Airline’s reaction was much more appropriate. The question is: given more time to react, would one well-advised press statement have calmed the crisis?

Preparation through moderation

The big lesson for brands is to make sure that the right stakeholders in the business are always alerted in minutes to the correct risks, even in the early hours of Monday morning. This could be by phone or email, but remember that an alert is no use sat in someone’s inbox.

It’s also important for brands to double check that the risk is real before getting stakeholders out of bed. Alerting stakeholders to false positives will dilute their response when a real risk does occur.