That is how I would have handled it if I had been United CEO (or their PR consultant).
In this age in which perception is king, and anyone can be a “reporter”, United should do some soul searching and revise how it handles its image and crisis management.
From a marketing and public relations perspective, this is exactly what your teacher warned you about. But it seems like United CEO Oscar Munoz, who in an ironic twist had been honored as PR Week´s Communicator of the Year just a month ago, didn't pay attention to his PR CRISIS 101 class.
At the time of writing this, United Airlines stock had fallen 1.1% and lost $255 million of the airline´s market. Social media was going crazy with calls for boycotting the company, and meme after meme was eroding the credibility of the brand.
In case you might have missed the scandal (do you live under a rock?), a ticketed customer was forcibly dragged out of a United flight, after the company announced that it was overbooked and 4 crew members needed to board the plane. You can see the videos everywhere.
What do we know about efficient crisis management? Here are the main points to follow:
Munoz seems to have forgotten that, in the court of public opinion, what matters is perception and intention. It doesn´t matter if the airline has a contract that legally allows it overbook a flight and randomly deny a customer the opportunity to fly, or as it was in this case, quick someone out of the plane. (This article by The Atlantic, does a great job explaining how airlines get away with it)
In the world of live Facebook video and constant sharing, you must be aware of customer´s perceptions, always. If you don´t want to see it on the evening news, don´t do it. (I give this exact advice to my kids; they seem to get it).
How you manage a situation like this, speaks volumes of your company culture, your values, and the way in which your own employees are treated and trained. Could the airline employees sweeten the deal for a volunteer customer to give up the seat? Reports mentioned they went up to $800 when they could legally go much higher. This is where, if you give your employees the necessary autonomy, and have their backs, they could have resolved the issue brilliantly. How about a 5-star hotel? A nice dinner? A limo ride? Could the airplane crew have appealed to the customers' empathy instead of using menacing statements such as “we are not leaving until 4 people give up their seats”? Perhaps they could have explained the circumstances, the implications, and consequences of no one giving up their seats? When you talk to people as if they are caring and understanding individuals, instead of treating them as a necessary “nuisance”, people respond in the same way.
Perhaps it is the time for United to go beyond PR, and look at what is happening to its own employees' morale. When employees are treated with respect, they treat the customers with respect.
This is the type of statement they could have written the next day:
“We at United, understand that all of our passengers have important reasons why they choose to fly.
We value your choice and preference when flying with us.
We apologize because, due to circumstances out of our control, a crew had to fly on this particular flight, causing 4 of our valued customers to have to be asked to take a later flight.
Unfortunately, sometimes we cannot entice our customers to voluntarily accept compensation and take another flight, and we are obliged to randomly ask some passengers to leave the plane. This is uncomfortable for both the crew and the customers. However, we ask for our clients to understand the circumstances and collaborate with us in a peaceful manner that allows for the safety and respect of all on board. We have become aware that, unfortunately, in an incident of this nature, one of our customers was subject to inappropriate conduct by officials when asked to leave the plane. We will investigate and address this matter immediately and seriously.We value our customers, our crew, and the safety of all who fly with us. We are very sorry this was handled in a way that was not keen to our values at United, and we promise to address the situation with our customer and crew to arrive at a solution.Furthermore, we will review our training and procedures, to assure no other customer is treated disrespectfully or in an inappropriate manner.
Our apologies go to those who have suffered through this ordeal.”