Three crisis PR experts agree that United Airlines is in a terrible place after a passenger was forcibly dragged from an overbooked flight — but they don’t agree on the best way out. Two believe CEO Oscar Munoz may need to step down for the company to bounce back.
Eric Schiffer, CEO of ReputationManagementConsult
“I would send out an authentic, heartfelt, true message from the heart on a human level and just say, ‘God, we so messed up,'” he told TheWrap. “And own it — that’s the problem most corporations have. United has not united their customers — instead, there is a crack in the union.”
A few hours after video of the dragging surfaced on social media, Munoz said in a statement: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.” United has also noted that Chicago aviation police, not United employees, dragged the passenger.
Michael Bilello, founder and practitioner at Centurion Strategies, believes it’s important to put a clear review plan in place and to start a social media campaign that is more human and empathetic. He said previous responses have seemed canned, which has elicited outrage.
“I would shut down all communication for a 24-hour period — there’s no point to further insult people with those statements and it doesn’t matter what they say, their brand has been damaged,” he said.
He adds that this is beyond anything United can fix on its own.
“This is going to take a lot of time, a lot of people to make this better with extended travel offers, and reinforcing how they made improvements,” he said. “Only the public telling their peers will tell if they will ever recover. United’s word means absolutely nothing. They are, what I would call, brand bankrupt.”
Chad Kawalec, president of Brand Identity Center in West Hollywood, agrees with Bilello.
“The only thing they can say is they are revamping their training where customers come first, not their employees,” he told TheWrap. “If one more thing happens, [the CEO] probably should step down. He’s not accepting responsibility although you would think he would. It’s the same thing Trump does — ‘let’s do an investigation’ when there’s a video. What’s the investigation? It doesn’t matter, it’s done. The public opinion is sealed.”
He also said that the CEO’s statement or the carefully worded responses won’t be enough to salvage the situation, and that “bolder” things need to be done.
“In a lot of ways, it’s going to be next to impossible to completely recover from this unless they do something much bolder than their CEO’s announcement,” he added. “Brand is all about trust, and what you are trusting an airline to do is get you where you need to go. And the fact that they did this is going to eclipse any sort of advertisement and PR they are trying to do.”
He added, “Those viral videos are going to cost them millions in advertising … Their brand is at the mercy of public opinion and they are not controlling the public opinion.”