It’s barely a month since United Airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz was named PR Week’s communicator of the year.
Oh how very, very long ago that must seem for him now.
The world has been repulsed not only by the initial incident – the forcible removal of a passenger from an overbooked plane – but by how ineptly the US’s third biggest airline responded.
What began on Sunday as a public relations crisis quickly escalated. By Tuesday the company was in the throes of an out and out disaster.
As footage of the incident quickly grabbed the world’s attention, the company responded.
First there was this United tweet
Then there was a letter from the CEO to employees in which Mr Munoz referred to the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.”
Furthermore, he said that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this”.
Oh boy! Oh boy!
We had to wait more than 48 hours – during which time the world became increasingly outraged and United’s share price dropped – for an apology.
Now Mr Munoz pledges to “do better” and apologises for the ‘truly horrific’ passenger incident.
If it was not Mr Munoz playing the fiddle while Rome burned, perhaps it was the company’s communications team.
Many businesses are struggling to adapt to the new digital era of communications.
In the era of citizen journalism and the immediacy of social media, one may question whether the removal of a passenger by force, as seemingly advocated by United,(setting aside obvious ethical and moral concerns) seems a glaring risk to the company’s reputation.
We live in an era of ‘trial by Twitter’ – the lack of timely and appropriate response has left PR professionals the world over incredulous.
By the time Mr Munoz had offered a full apology, the top trending topic on Twitter in the US was #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos.
Suggested slogans included “not enough seating, prepare for a beating.”
United was also the top trending topic on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, with more than 100 million views.
It will be interesting to see the impact of the incident and the response to it in the medium to long term.
“Had United shown compassion and intent to make things right, they could have come out of this at the very least looking like an airline that cares,” Ed Zitron, a PR expert, told CNN.
“Instead they’ve just made it even worse.”
Well said, Mr Zitron.
Companies should take heed of United’s woes, if any lesson can be learned it’s the need to quickly acknowledge an error, show remorse and address the crisis.
Perhaps it is fair to assume that it could be some time before Mr Munoz is honoured with any further PR awards.