Lessons learned from…the United Airlines reputation crisis

Jennifer Janson looks at what small businesses can take away from the United Airlines reputation crisis.

News about United Airlines denying boarding to a ten-year-old girl for wearing leggings had just started to die down but the airline found itself in the headlines again this week when a video of airport security forcibly removing a passenger from a plane went viral, setting the scene for a potential reputation crisis.

After realising that it needed to get airline staff to a different airport, United Airlines asked for volunteers to get off the plane. This, in itself should not come as a surprise – it’s in the small print of every airline that this can happen. Frustrating as it is, it is often a matter of inconveniencing four passengers to be able to service 300 others. And managing these complexities is a critical part of the commercial airline industry.

In this particular instance, when no one volunteered when offered $800, the airline randomly chose four passengers. One refused to leave, claiming he had patients to see the next day, and was then physically dragged off the plane. Images of the passenger’s bloody face have been all over the news.

Since then, communications from the CEO, Oscar Munoz, have varied in tone. It started with a public statement apologising for having to ‘re-accommodate’ customers. Behind the scenes, however, he allegedly described the passenger as ‘belligerent’. Since then, we’ve seen another public apology from Munoz, and an admission that no paying passenger sitting on the plane should be treated that way.

For many people, this incident has highlighted that United Airlines needs to evaluate how it treats its passengers. It often comes at the bottom of the rankings when it comes to customer service. Though alarmingly, Munoz was just months ago names as a communicator of the year by PR Week.

With its share price plummeting, what can businesses take away from this incident?

Prevention is better than cure

It’s important to stress that many a reputation crisis can be minimised, or even averted with early notice. All airlines overbook flights knowing that some passengers won’t turn up. While this works most of the time, sometimes it means passengers can’t board a flight. Telling them at check in and offering compensation is likely to make a passenger much happier than waiting until they’d boarded a delayed flight. There’s an argument that this business model needs to change, but until it does, the communications around these policies is critical.

This applies to any business. If you’ve made too many reservations in a restaurant, or are unable to complete a piece of client work by the day you’ve told them, let your customer know as soon as possible and tell them how you’ll make it up to them. A crisis is judged as much by how you actually handle it as the crisis itself.

Be consistent

Internal communications doesn’t always stay within the company. In a company the size of United Airlines, an open letter to all employees is very likely to find its way to the media. Calling the passenger names in private, while appearing apologetic in public looks disingenuous. It IS disingenuous. It smacks of a culture where values are focused more on money than customer satisfaction – and that’s never a great long-term strategy.

Politicians have often been caught out saying something in private that has been made public (think David Cameron or Brooks Newmark). The best approach to take is to not say anything to your staff that you wouldn’t say to the general public.

And don’t be led blindly by lawyers. They will tell you what to say and what not to say based on what will stand up in a court of law. No doubt United was told ‘under no circumstances admit liability’. But you know what? This was caught on video. It might not technically be United’s fault (if the blame is found to lie at the feet of law enforcement) but it happened on its plane so it is most certainly its problem. Find a lawyer who understands the financial implication of reputational damage.

Be human

This applies during a crisis, and at all other times. Each member of staff should ask themselves how they would like to be treated, and whether they are doing the right thing. Of course people (and businesses) make mistakes. It’s important to remember that this isn’t the time to disappear behind corporate robot jargon. Words like ‘re-accommodate’ will only alienate customers. Ideally, a written statement will have the same tone as if you were speaking to the customers in person. And above all – it must be genuine.

After the horrific crash at Alton Towers, the CEO was visibly shocked during media interviews, and his human response led to outpourings of support during less friendly interviews. Showing humanity can be just the thing that’s needed to make things right.

Further reading on reputation management

Nominations are now open for the British Small Business Awards, the leading event celebrating the brightest stars in the SME sector. Click here to enter, and make sure you get involved today using the hashtag #BSBAwards. Good luck!

Ben Lobel

Delphine Hintz

Ben Lobel was the editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2010 to 2018. He specialises in writing for start-up and scale-up companies in the areas of finance, marketing and HR.

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