“Brand genocide.” A “world-class debacle on an epic scale.” A “gruesome, epic-scale fail.” These are a few of the phrases a top crisis manager uses to describe United Airlines’ removal-by-dragging of a passenger on an overbooked flight.
“It’s a gruesome, epic-scale fail that follows their leggings crash landing. At United, their CEO is clearly clueless about dealing with the public and the customers, and they are embarking on brand genocide with a brand that was trusted and loved that is now causing people to generate stress hormones when they hear the name,” Schiffer said. “This is everything that you learn as a brander as to what not to do. It’s like they’ve gone to the Donald Trump School of Media Relations.”
Video of the now-infamous removal shows security agents dragging a screaming passenger from his seat as other passengers look on in shock. In a statement, United tried to stress that the men who dragged the passenger did not work for United. The Chicago Department of Aviation said an officer had been placed on leave and that the dragging “was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure.”
“Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate,” the statement read. “We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.”
Schiffer said one of United’s biggest problems is that the passenger hadn’t done anything wrong.
“This man was a professional — this isn’t someone who was trying to get over on United,” Schiffer added. “He was seated and paid for a seat, and this is a discretionary call on their part and it’s the kiss of death to customer trust. When you go onto a United flight, you don’t think there will be blood and you don’t think you’re going to be slammed in the face.”
A few hours after the incident first surfaced on social media, United CEO Oscar 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.”
But the statement and the way the United PR team handled the situation, said Schiffer, is not the way this incident should have been dealt with.
“I think their CEO learned public relations from the Nazi party,” added Schiffer. “I think you will see an effect on sales for people that are disgusted by both the action and the Nazi party-like PR responses, and it’s catastrophic for a brand’s trust. United thinks they have monopoly and on paper they do, but what they fail to understand is that customers still have a choice and they will exercise it if they feel their safety is now at risk.”
Chad Kawalec, president of Brand Identity Center in West Hollywood, agreed with Schiffer that Munoz should have handled the situation better.
“The CEO is absolving himself of anything,” he told TheWrap. “Instead of taking responsibility, he just said there’s an internal investigation that will take place. It’s going to be next to impossible to completely recover from this unless they do something much bolder than their CEO’s announcement. Brand is all about trust, and what you are trusting an airline to do is to 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.”
The worst part, said Kawalec, is that customers will now worry about what United might do to them — and instead chose a rival like American Airlines, Southwest and Virgin America.
“The most devastating thing is that the passenger wasn’t being rowdy — this is an incident that could happen to you, it could happen to me,” Kawalec told TheWrap. “He did nothing, that’s why it’s extra severe. Their brand is currently at the mercy of public opinion and they are not controlling the public opinion.”
He noted that the passenger was a doctor who said he needed to take the flight to meet with patients. One journalist has already accused United of an “act of racial violence” because the dragged customer was Asian.
“The fact that the passenger was Asian — the fact that they talk so much about diversity — is going to kill them. The fact that he was a doctor trying to get to his patients is going to kill them. The fact that he he was innocent — it’s going to kill them,” said Kawalec.
So what should be their next step? While Schiffer believes the CEO should step down or have the board condemn his management, Michael Bilello, founder and practitioner at Centurion Strategies, believes it’s important to put a clear plan in place for internal and external review and put together a solid social media campaign that is more human and empathetic than their canned responses they have been firing off against outraged people on social media.
“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.
“In a short term, this will really hurt them,” added Schiffer. “In business terms, this will be managed. They have the money to do the ads, to put out the negative messages and they can get by through just the power of the scale they have, but they are definitely going to lose customers.”
Bilello, however, says that this is beyond anything United can fix on their own.
“In my humble opinion, this is beyond anything they can do,” he concluded. “This is going to take a lot of time, a lot of people to make this better with extended travel offers and reinforce how they made improvements. 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.”