#2 – Product Quality in PR: United Airlines’ crisis communications strategy review (2017)

A few days ago I got reminded of a lecture in my second year of university. It was on marketing communications, and the conveying professor explained how communications is just a small part on developing the brand. He, however, highlights that when the other essentials of a product and brand is not met, no matter how good the marketing communications strategy is, it still won’t sell. It all goes back to the embedded product quality—because a great marketing communications strategy cannot stand on its own.

I assume that most of you have heard about the recent PR disaster of United Airlines happening almost one week ago. I was quite surprised on how the coverage got blown up into various media and social media accounts, along with Pepsi’s controversial ad. As a PR student, I followed the news on PR Week and previously assumed that people from non-PR background won’t follow the issue. But I guess general public think that the issue is just too huge to be ignored.

One of the most debated issues in international service industry for the past week is United Airline’s case of passengers removal. The case invited public attention a few hours after the flight was boarded, primarily because there were eyewitnesses who saw David Dao, a Chinese American from Kentucky, being dragged off the plane, filmed it, and posted their videos on Facebook Live. Below is one of the video uploaded on the removal.

The next day, the video went viral worldwide, United’s stock plummeted and fell down 2% as described here, and the case was labeled as one of the most disasterous PR nightmare ever happened by PR Week. Numerous coverages was made on the incident, and other airlines didn’t fall short on taking advantages of United’s fallout. The recent coverage of the issue by CNBC Live featured Turkish Airlines’ advertisment spot—and TA wasn’t the only one on the go.

The video containing Turkish Airlines’ ad can be viewed here.

After the video went viral, United Airlines’ CEO, Oscar Munoz, made a public statement on the issue. His statement can be viewed below.

United Airlines’ CEO Statement (taken from twitter.com/united)

Let’s take a moment to assess his public apology statement.

He went ahead by sympathizing with United’s customers and made a statement that implied on his intention to fix the problems by reviewing regulations. That part was good, byt the main problem lies in the third paragraph.

In the third paragraph, Oscar emphasized how the main problem lies in the internal and external regulations on overbooking. However, the public has long knew that this was not a case of overbooking. He and three of United’s crew members needed to get to Louisiana quickly, so rather than trying on different transportation options available, they did what they thought was the best options—that is telling four passengers that had been boarded on the plane that they should go home and try again later.

The supporting article can be found here.

The information that there had not been a case of overbooking went viral. People knew that there was no overbooking, but the company keep mentioning it, even in its public apology statement. That way of apologizing, without admitting their mistakes, didn’t produce any simpathy from their stakeholders. You can tell me—is it effective?

This case of so-called overbooking claim, however, had long been known to be a problem in United’s service.

A week prior to Dao’s case, Geoff Fearns, President of TriPacific Capital Advisors, was subjected to a threat that if he didn’t leave the first-class, he would be jailed. Appearantly the plane got switched a few hours before boarding, United didn’t have enough first-class seat as the plane was not as big, and the solution was to select the customers with most milleage to stay in their seat and kicking everyone else out. Geoff complained the company’s improper behavior and service directly while asking for his return ticket money and donation in his name. However, United shrug it off with uncaring manner in communication, and he went on filing the lawsuit publicly.

Geoff’s case didn’t get as many public attention as Dao’s did, but the cases are real. Whoever you are, if you’re using United, you can be told to get off anytime.

The full article on Geoff’s case can be found here.

Geoff, like Dao, was told to get off after they got boarded. Can the airline actually do that?

To understand the legal basis of United’s case, please watch CNN’s interview with Mary Schiavo, an aviation analyst, below.

To summarize, from legal perspective the case was full staked on United’s mistake. On the Federal Aviation Regulation it was mentioned that every airlines has the right to reject boarding any of its passengers in any circumstances—that is providing it happened before boarding, was voluntarily done, and respective customers was given incentives. In Dao’s case, however, the airline stopped asking for volunteers to get off the plane after 1,000 USD marks and started randomly throwing people off. They didn’t want to lose a lot of money, and people began to understand that.

United’s actions in pre-crisis stage showed how little the airline thinks of customers’ satisfaction impacts their overall perceived quality. In acute stage, they also failed the very essence of crisis communication, which is to apologize honestly. They disregard the fact that people nowadays can access information more easily, and that nothing can be covered up when it got to public’s attention. The company only released one public statement in its social media accounts, and a following one of its press conference statement in its website’s newsroom. For an internationally-recognized brand involved in global-scaled crisis, people would think that the company’s focus must be on reviving its image, but appearantly budget was also set tight.

The company’s statement in its press conference on April 13 contained similar message with the previous one, as can be read below.

We continue to express our sincerest apology to Dr. Dao.  We cannot stress enough that we remain steadfast in our commitment to make this right.

This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action. We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.

First, we are committing that United will not ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from our flights unless it is a matter of safety and security.  Second, we’ve started a thorough review of policies that govern crew movement, incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.  Third, we will fully review and improve our training programs to ensure our employees are prepared and empowered to put our customers first.  Our values – not just systems – will guide everything we do.  We’ll communicate the results of our review and the actions we will take by April 30.

United CEO Oscar Munoz and the company called Dr. Dao on numerous occasions to express our heartfelt and deepest apologies.

taken from newsroom.united.com

For me the statement still didn’t sound sincere, as it emphasizes on the overbooking situation, but was better than the previous one. It shown United’s acknowledgement of their internal mistakes and their commitment to construct their internal department better in the future.

The statement was directly followed with concrete actions. As quoted from The Guardian here, the airline said it would ensure that off-duty crew travelling on its aircraft were allocated seats at least one hour before departure to avoid customers being turfed off flights after boarding.

United also took a drastic approach in conflict management by initiating a smear campaign against the victim. Several second and third-tier media, primarily online media, highlights the issue from different angle. Those media used controversial headlines in framing Dao’s negative image.

“Doctor Dragged Off Flight Was Convicted of Trading Dugs for Sex” by New York Post as can be read here.

“Doc Pulled from United Flight Previously Convicted of Drug Crimes” by New York Daily News which later got edited into normal article as can be read here.

“United Passenger Traded Drug for Gay Sex with Patient” by Daily Mail as can be read here.

“Revealed: All About the Doctor Dragged Off Overbooked United Flight — and His Troubled Past” by People Magazine.

From reading the headlines, many of you would probably think that this is some sort of fake news. I can’t really say anything on that because it is really difficult to try and reason our rationality with the media now. What I can assure you, now, is that some media had published censored copies of Dr. Dao’s medical letter of information as can be seen below.


Dr. Dao’s Medical Letter of Information (taken from dailymail.co.uk)

I will not emphasize on whether the content is true or not, but rather on what part United had on this.

Who do you think tipped off the media on Dr. Dao’s ‘troubled past’?

Well, it would most likely be United. I would say there is about 99% chance that this is United on hard self-defense mode  talking. Otherwise, there might really be someone desperate enough to dig for hardly-sought materials on the victim around his community in Kentucky.

I bet many of his close friends doesn’t even know the fact that he was once convicted.

However, with the incident facts keep piling around and circulating in the internet, public view on the case didn’t get any better. There had been numerous public postings in social media on customers’ dissatisfaction, one of their way in expressing it is by cutting their United Membership Card in pieces. Popular social media channels also amplifies the issue by creating creative contents such as memes and videos, on par with Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad.


Cut United Card (taken from twitter.com/jperfetto)

Why do you think their consumers had a very strong response to the issue?

A general answer would be because United did not treat their consumers accordingly. That was where the conflict began. But lets try to focus on their post-conflict measures and try to really critically assess the issue why none of their tactics worked.

As I explained before, United’s public apology did not really claim that they were in the wrong. They did not mention what they are apologizing for—were they talking about their overbooking management tactics which didn’t folow the standards, their rough treatment of Dr. Dao involving officers, or rather because of the inconvinience they caused with this spectacle? The fact that they did not mention the problem alone illustrated the company as an arrogant actor with no intention of solving the problem in this issue.

It also showed that they were not being honest.

Instead of being honest, sincere, and try to be empathetic on the victims like any successful companies in crisis do, they took the opposite fraction. They, instead, chose to keep attacking the victim by stating false claims and using smear campaign strategy to destroy Dr. Dao’s image.

However, as I said before, the public is not dumb. They perfectly know when a company is being insincere and downright dishonest.

Truth can be denied, but it can never be concealed.


United Airlines’ claim of the event (taken from dailymail.co.uk)


Fun fact—not many have known this, but Oscar was recently awarded as ‘Communicator of the Year’ by PR Week less than a month prior.  His achievement in increasing the company’s shares in the last 5 years along with his capability in understanding and connecting with employees made him a strong contender for the award. However, the recent crisis and his strategy in handling it had brought the general public in doubts—is he really the Communicator of the Year? The crisis had both hurt Oscar’s and PR Week’s credibility as a leading media on PR.

The article containing short case study on his resume can be found here.

Munoz has shown himself to be a smart, dedicated, and excellent leader who understands the value of communications. His ability to connect and share with employees his vision for the airline, and get them to rally behind it, is a key reason PRWeek named him 2017 Communicator of the Year.
—taken from PR Week

The company had taken necessary measures, shown that they are commited to change, while led with a should-be communication-able CEO, yet the issue has yet to calm down . The public sentiment is still highly negative, and it is deeply rooted from the acumulative sentiments customers have on the airline. After all, honesty is the core in building brands. A brand that is publicly known to be dishonest will never be fullly trusted by its customers.

In the airline industry, numerous crisis potential can take place from both internal and external factors. For that reason, many airlines set a high standard on their internal aspects development, but appearantly it wasn’t the case with United. Its customer service had long been labeled as having a bad quality, in direct opposition with its tagline—“Fly the Friendly Sky“.

A good PR is a good PR, but what can it do when the foundations are set to fail?

Lintang Cahyaningsih


2 Comment

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  2. […] persona without being associated with his/her overshadowed true self. It reminded me of United’s crisis in which their branding strategy turned sour when product quality didn’t meet the […]

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