A PR Crisis: What Not to Do – The United Airlines Story

by Valerie Train

You’ve seen the memes…you’ve seen the Tweets… But do you really know what’s going on with United Airlines? Well, in short, United Airlines over-booked a flight, then everything went downhill from there. In order to get crew members on the flight and to their next destination, United sent airport police onto the plane to remove a few randomly selected & very unlucky passengers. Within a few minutes an over-booked flight ended with officers dragging a man off of the plane against his will. This passenger was bleeding, missing teeth, and reportedly diagnosed with a concussion among other injuries.

Sounds terrible right? Well, just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, United Airlines released one of the worst apologies of all time:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

– Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines


Terrible Crisis Management

United Airlines’ crisis management and “commitment” to Public Relations Excellence were abysmal. United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, who is already in hot water for the yoga pants incident a few weeks ago, released an inconsiderate backhanded apology. While he did apologize twice, he never actually said he was sorry for what happened. When dealing with stakeholders, apologizing and being truly remorseful for your actions are two very different things.

We wonder if his “apology” had anything to do with this…

PR Crisis United Airlines


How to Actually Handle a PR Crisis

  1. One of the first rules in crisis PR is to explain to your stakeholders how you will ensure this incident will never happen again and United Airlines has failed to do so. The CEO, Oscar Munoz, said they would “fix what’s broken so this will never happen again.” Ahh yes, very specific. I am sure the stakeholders feel a lot better about that detailed and transparent plan.
  1. Another rule is to take responsibility. Blaming the victim in a roundabout way does not fit under the category of taking responsibility. Having accountability is one of the most important things for any leader – it shows character and humility. Generally speaking, consumers and other businesses do not want to support a company that they perceive as untrustworthy or having immoral social standards.
  2. Finally, know the situation before you address the media. It would have been in United’s best interest to wait a little bit longer before issuing a public apology. Had they done that, they may have handled the situation differently. Gather more information, see what people are saying, and then address the media.


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Published: April 11, 2017

Categories: Crisis, Crisis Communication, public relations