We let the facts do the talking.

United Airlines’ CEO Faces Reputational Crisis After PR Disaster

It only takes one accident to turn a CEO from a hero to a villain in the space of a month. The CEO of United Airlines is one of the latest public figures to have experienced this catastrophic about turn, as he had been named U.S. Communicator of the Year by PR Week just a month before one of the most embarrassing incidents in the company’s history crashed about his ears.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the incident involved a United Airlines passenger being forcibly dragged from his seat on an overbooked flight by a security officer. United Airlines’ own employees failed to act appropriately during the incident and the shocking scene quickly hit social media, escalating rapidly. The video went viral and articles appeared the world over.

What made it worse is that United Airlines’ poor response turned this incident into even more of a PR disaster for the company, placing the whole airline under the microscope. United Airlines and its CEO didn’t react positively, partially blaming the passenger and failing to offer a full apology, which shows a thorough lack of understanding in how to deal with such incidents.

The incident has the potential to do huge damage to the company’s stakes and profits, as customers are likely to think twice before booking with United Airlines. While the incident itself suggests there are greater issues for the company to address, such as training and standards of conduct, the crisis could have been handled better to avoid escalating and worsening the situation.

Whenever a crisis arises, there are several measures that can be adopted by companies to ensure that their reputation is safeguarded. Below are some tips that might have been helpful for United Airlines:

  • QUICK RESPONSE: Responding quickly to incidents is crucial as bad news spreads rapidly nowadays and there is not time to waste. Crisis response strategies should already be in place so they can be rolled out swiftly.
  • FULL APOLOGY: Owning up to an incident and sending direct apologies not only to the media but also the affected individuals is a must, as it shows that the company regrets or sympathizes with what happened.
  • GET YOUR FACTS STRAIGHT: Facts should be stated accurately and clearly so there is no room for doubt and the credibility of the company is protected. Making any false claims or accusations against the affected will only make matters worse and prompt more questions from the media, muddying the company’s reputation.
  • TRANSPARENCY WITH THE MEDIA: Media enquiries should be dealt with quickly and professionally as journalists don’t like it when their enquiries are ignored or not responded to. Ignoring the crisis simply raises more doubts and increases the likelihood that false or contradictory stories will be published. Transparency is crucial here and a holding statement should be shared so that the company’s messages are consistent across all media channels.
  • IDENTIFYING THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM: Companies must ensure that such mistakes are not repeated again. This involves providing employees with proper instructions and procedures that limit the potential for issues to arise, as well as a clear communication plan in case they do.

The best way for a company to deal with a crisis is to admit their mistake, own their response, and then ensure it never happens again.

Khaled Abu Hishme is the Sr. Account Manager of Cicero & Bernay Public Relations. An independent PR agency headquartered in Dubai and offering new-age public relations consultancy to the UAE and across the GCC. |