‘Sorry can be the most powerful move’: what brands can learn from the ongoing United Airlines PR crisis

United Airlines has suffered a number of blows to its brand in recent months, with the airline struggling to get ahead of negative social media coverage. Mumbrella's Abigail Dawson asks crisis experts how brands can maintain its reputation when facing an on-going crisis.

United Airline’s reputation first entered crisis phase in March this year when two teenagers were banned from a flight for wearing leggings, with the crisis entering a new phase just last month when passenger Dr. Dao was dragged off an over-booked flight.

For the airline, its problems have not improved with the airline accused of forcing a Kansas City woman to pee in a cup on board a United Airlines flight, while another accusation has surfaced claiming the airline canceled a passengers’ flight once he began filming a dispute on his mobile phone.

The reputational damage incurred by United Airline’s has been immense, with the public taking to social media to criticise the airline for mishandling its response to the video of Dr. Dao being dragged off one of its flights.

Although the company issued a statement after the video went viral, WE Buchan’s CEO Rebecca Wilson said “United should have apologised much quicker”.

WeBuchan’s CEO Rebecca Wilson “it’s all about the response”

“Regardless of the circumstances, the apparent heavy handedness of how it was dealt with was never going to win in the public court. Saying sorry is something large organisations often struggle to do,” she said.

“They see sorry as being an admission of fault – whereas I strongly believe ‘sorry’ can be the most powerful issues mitigatory move and is a sign of the character, integrity and humility of an organisation.

“A company needs to respond more quickly, be transparent, and say sorry. They won’t always have the facts straight away but acknowledgment is an important first step.

“Avoiding a crisis is often about empathy and sensitivity,” Wilson added.

Grant Titmus, principal of Red Agency Melbourne, agreed saying United Airline’s situation was the prefect example of how an individual can leverage social media to pressure a company to react after an initial response is under-whelming.

“It took them two goes to get it right,” he said.

“Not being contrite initially about Dr Dao cost them dearly – $780m wiped off their share price within 24 hours. The company, than realising the situation was more serious, had the CEO front the media and say sorry.

“This was the right thing to do – it is just a pity companies don’t get it right the first time. As all airlines do, they would have planned for a vast number of scenarios and how to react, but the inflexibility of some of these plans is what has brought them unstuck,” Titmus said.

Titmus: ” Minimising the damage to a brand is critical in those first few hours”

Media response

On what should have happened, WE Buchan’s Wilson said United Airline’s needed to “be grounded in customer-centric behaviour and thinking”, which Wilson said would have avoided tarnishing the airline’s reputation.

“With several issues emerging since the first incident, the road to rebuilding customer sentiment and equity is possible but will require more than a marketing campaign. It will require cultural change where United comes back to a place where it can be reminded why it exists.

“Actually, the question you need to ask when considering a response, is what is the potential impact on reputation and how could it escalate?” she said.

Red Agency’s Titmus, thought the airline made the right decision in using the CEO as a spokesperson, however, the message should have been delivered sooner.

“Social media is making this more difficult for companies to contain. Being able to respond quickly is critical as is what message you are going out with. Preparation is key and having the right people either in-house or consulting to you is an integral part of that. Having the right spokesperson is key.

“The United Airlines CEO did come across well in his contrite interview, it was just 24 hours too late. Be prepared and it is better to overreact than oppose,” Titmus said.

For Karen Dunnicliff, associate director at Sefiani Communications Group, preparation and planning are key.

When faced with an ongoing crisis, the communications team needs to “anticipate and prepare for such scenarios, however bizarre they might be, and consistently reinforce the CEO’s public commitment to rectify problems when they occur no matter how challenging they are, while at all times treating customers with respect and dignity,” she said.

Dunnicliff: “There were so many red flags along the way that highlighted a potential “issue in the making”


National conversation

Following a crisis of any level, a brand must rebuild its reputation and for Wilson this is possible for any business recovering from any problem.

“Any brand can rebuild its reputation but it must be done with an absolute genuine attempt to change behaviour and deal with the root cause,” she said.

” The public can see through a marketing campaign – develop a campaign that demonstrates, not just speaks to, how this is being done.

“It’s all about the response. Striking the right tone and content in that first communication is essential in establishing how the organisations plans to deal with the issue.

“Asking the question, how do you want to be perceived at the end of this issue before deciding that tactical response is essential,” Wilson said.

Sefiani’s Dunnicliff said brands just need to drill down on what went wrong as they “risk fanning the flames of a crisis if they don’t first respond to the basic human principle – ‘what happened here was wrong’.”

“There’s a way to stand by your staff without compromising your humanity and care for customers,” she said.

“Have a solid escalation policy for customer service to flag complaints likely to garner negative media or social media attention and ensure customer service staff are regularly trained on the impact poorly-handled complaints can have from a brand and reputation perspective.”

For brands looking at the United Airline’s situation, Titmus said the key lessons are around understanding risks and planning for them.

“Either have the right people in place that can advise you if the risk becomes an issue or a crisis or get them involved as soon as you can,” he said.

“With social media, companies can no longer hide behind a call centre or other delaying tactics, they need to get on the front foot, apologise if necessary and move on.”


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