What can we learn from United Airlines & the Oscar Munoz Incident?
This post is written by David Kermode who is the former editor of BBC Breakfast Channel 5 News, and ITV Daybreak and has worked as a consultant with the BBC World Service. He is now a communications consultant and senior-level media trainer, working with On Track International.
A month ago, Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, was honoured as PR Week ‘Communicator of the Year’. How long a month feels in modern media.
What happened on Flight 3411 from Chicago – a reasonably routine ‘overbooking’ situation that turned into a public relations catastrophe – has led to immediate changes in airport procedure.
However, it’s the communications strategy that really needs some attention.
Dr David Dao is now out of hospital, recovering and considering his legal options, after the very public – and very brutal – ‘de-plane-ing’ that left him being dragged off, bleeding and screaming.
His wounds, as serious as they were, will be healed long before the damage to United’s reputation, as the viral video continues to do the rounds on social media and news websites.
So what are the lessons?
The incident would inevitably have caused some reputational turbulence, but it need not have been the worldwide PR disaster that it was.
For me, the biggest failure seems to have been in the immediate public response. When things go wrong, it generally takes time to find out the facts. That’s what well-crafted ‘holding statements’ are for.
United found itself in a situation where passenger video was going viral showing one thing -someone determined to defend his right to travel with a ticket he’d purchased in good faith – whilst the airline was saying something else – accusing that paying passenger of being “disruptive and belligerent”.
Consumers are not stupid; they watch the film and they make up their own minds. United found itself with an immediate credibility problem. The comments, from Mr Munoz, were intended for staff consumption, presumably to reassure them. They were bound to leak and they were inevitably going to be interpreted as the company’s ‘official statement’.
The correct response would have been a holding statement, with a humble tone, words of regret and the promise of a full – and fast – investigation of the facts. It’s impossible to do that, if you’ve already appeared to blame the passenger for the imbroglio.
Then there’s the tone of voice; in the first public statement, Mr Munoz spoke of the need to “re-accommodate” Dr Dao in an “overbook situation”. Using euphemisms is a bad idea, at the best of times, and looks totally tone deaf when the muck has just hit the fan blades.
The correct response came a couple of days later, when the United CEO appeared on Good Morning America to apologise unreservedly, saying “no-one should ever be treated this way”, promising a full review and offers of compensation for all the passengers affected. This time, the words felt right, the actions appropriate, but the damage was done.
So why did United, and its celebrated ‘communicator’ get it so wrong?
I don’t know, because I wasn’t there, but I’m guessing the legal department may have had a hand in the wording of that fateful first statement from the CEO. If so, that was a big mistake. Yes, cock ups can cost in compensation, but reputational disaster has a far higher price tag, as the subsequent slide in the share price underlined.
It seems that there must have been a lack of high-level, external, communications counsel. Anyone worth their fee would have taken one look at the social media footage, already going viral, and concluded that striking the correct tone at that point was more important than anything else.
Then there’s the choice of words. With his impressive ‘resume’, Mr Munoz must have had plenty of media training, so he ought to have known what sort of language to avoid, and which keywords needed to be hit – there and then. The initial language felt horribly ‘corporate’ and ‘operational’, completely devoid of empathy or humility and – crucially – totally at odds with the pictures we could all click on. If he was being advised, then it was either bad advice, or he wasn’t listening.
The fact that United got it right in the end deserves mention, of course, but how Mr Munoz must wish it had all come together faster than it did.
As for ‘communicator of the year’, whoever wins that accolade next year could be forgiven for thinking it a mixed blessing.
More about David Kermode:
David is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster with two decades of experience in television, radio and digital news, both at the BBC and in the commercial sector.
David enjoyed overall responsibility for BBC Breakfast on BBC One for almost four years, during which time he re-positioned the programme, integrating business news with a popular news agenda, and leading the show to the market leadership it still enjoys today. David relishes a challenge and also relaunched Channel 5 News, produced at the time by Sky News, giving the programme a new identity, as ‘Five News with Natasha Kaplinsky’ and a new editorial tone of voice, which resulted in an audience increase in excess of 50%.
He has worked in senior roles with ITV and in the network BBC newsroom, duty editing national news bulletins, including, on occasions, the News at Ten. He also has extensive experience of rolling news, having been an editor on the continuous news channel.
More recently, David was a change consultant with the BBC World Service, helping BBC Arabic develop a new digital identity in the crowded, noisy, Middle East media market. With extensive management experience leading large teams, David is an accomplished communicator, who enjoys helping others develop their skills, and he is an experienced broadcaster himself, having presented shows on LBC and Capital Radio in the past.
Although he has now moved away from the ‘coalface’ of the newsroom, he remains addicted to the news agenda, plugged in to social media, and keen to help businesses cut through in their communication.