United’s PR Nightmare

PR and marketing roles are often grouped into one, especially at smaller companies who don’t have a budget for full time staff dedicated to each. There are several different arenas where someone can be a marketing professional, especially in today’s world. You can be PR focused, a B2B expert, a social media guru, a digital expert, inbound/outbound marketing, the list goes on and on and on. I find them all to be fascinating and at various organizations in my careers I have experienced a little bit of everything and have found PR to be the absolute hardest.

PR is hard when you’re doing it for a company and have relatively little media response to handle. News organizations and media outlets looking for stories have hundreds of ideas pitched to them every day and it’s incredibly easy to get lost in the shuffle. I worked in a newsroom as a producer at both ABC and NBC stations and the first part of my day was deleting about 99% of press releases that landed in my inbox. I know how much noise you’re up against when trying to generate free press and it is no easy task.

Getting media coverage is the “easy” side of PR. Responding to the press in the time of crises? You better be able to run on no sleep and have an immunity to stress. By now you have to be living in a dark hole to not have known about the incident including Dr. David Dao being dragged off a United Airlines flight. At the time of posting, 69 year old Dao has suffered a broken nose and a concussion and will require reconstructive surgery. His lawyer announced today that he will be filing a lawsuit.

United’s response? Well, I don’t think that their PR team really has a handbook for this type of situation. The first statement from United CEO Oscar Munoz seemed to undermine the extent of the situation:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” he said. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

The response from the public was far from accepting and United later took more of an apologetic stance on the issue:

“The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way,” Munoz said in a statement. “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right,” he added.

So, what could United have done differently in this situation aside from, you know, not dragging a passenger off the plane? I honestly don’t know. The part of me who sees the horrific pictures of David Dao and believes that it could have happened to anyone is horrified that they didn’t first and foremost apologize and take responsibility. Especially with the unique circumstance of this incident of all of those very public cell phone videos! This story seems pretty impossible to spin so own up right away and apologize.

However, the PR professional in me who has been in my fair share of uncomfortable PR situations with legal matters involved understands why they didn’t apologize immediately. It’s the same reason we’re often advised to never admit fault in a car accident, you want to protect yourself. I think that United’s PR team is constantly under the pressures of corporate regulations and they understood that in this time of crises and knew they had to say something without admitting fault.

As for what they do next? I cannot begin to pretend I know the best way to effectively handle PR in this type of a situation. What I do know is that there are currently 20+ PR/Marketing positions available at United if you happen to be a glutton for punishment.