In my forthcoming book on crisis management, I describe the six stages of crisis. This week United Airlines went from Stage 4, “Escalating Flow of Events,” to Stage 6, “Bunker Down,” in record time.
At 4:40 p.m. a United flight attendant tries to get volunteers to give up their seats on Flight 3411 because the flight is overbooked. After no passengers accept an offer of an $800 voucher, the crew announces that four passengers would be chosen at random. When one of those refused to deplane, he is forcibly removed by security staff. At 5:21 videos of the passenger being violently dragged from the plane appear on social media. By Sunday evening, there were more than 16,000 mentions online.
United’s tone-deaf response on social media: “After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.” Things are escalating fast, but there’s nothing authentic in United’s corporate babble. Direct further details “to authorities?”
Then United went into bunker down mode. It largely went silent until it tried to fix things the next day.
By midday on Monday, there were more than 1.7 million mentions online. CEO Oscar Munoz tweets, “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” The clumsy and insincere apology ignited the internet once more. That night, Jimmy Kimmel skewered the CEO’s euphemism for hauling the passenger from the plane: “This is like when we re-accommodated El Chapo out of Mexico!”
Kimmel didn’t stop there. On Munoz’s choice of words: “That is such sanitized, say nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporatized BS speak,” said Kimmel, “I don’t know how the guy that sent that tweet didn’t vomit when he typed it out.”
Meanwhile the furor In China, one of the world’s most important airline markets, garnered more than 270 million views and 150,000 comments on the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. One witness said the victim believed he had been singled out for being Asian. Many social media comments in China accused the airline of being racist.
On Tuesday evening, United decided to give it another try. Munoz said that United would take “full responsibility” for the situation.
This morning, he was interviewed on Good Morning America—his only interview during the entire debacle. Munoz said, “My initial words fell short of truly expressing what we were feeling…this will never happen again…the use of law enforcement on an airplane has to be looked at…I have to fix that…no one should be treated this way.”
- When you’ve made a mistake, apologize soon and sincerely. An apology that blames the victim is worse than none at all.
- In crisis, you’ve got to be agile. Otherwise you’ll never keep up with the escalating flow of events.
- Don’t bunker down. United lost tens of millions of dollars of goodwill, not to mention market value, while it allowed three days to pass to issue a sincere apology from a human presence.