How United Airlines Could Have Avoided Its PR Crisis

    by Kathryn Janicek
    April 12, 2017
    Photo by Luis Argerich via Wikimedia Commons

    The following opinion piece is a guest post and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.

    By now, you’ve seen the videos.

    So what about the doctor’s past history that I keep reading about today? Does that have anything to do with all this? No.

    You’ve heard the news reports.


    You’ve read all your friends’ posts on Facebook about what they say United Airlines and the doctor should have done Sunday.

    I’ve been on the phone for the past 24 hours with people asking me what should have been done and how I can help the doctor.

    As of this writing, the doctor has been hospitalized and has a lawyer helping him take care of his family and professional reputation. I hope he recovers physically and mentally. What happened to him was inhumane.


    The story is global and it’s especially bad in China. Media there is all over this story because of the doctor’s ethnicity. It’s not good for United because the airline is targeting the country for air travel growth. China is just the world’s fastest growing major aviation market.

    Was this all preventable? Yes.

    How Critical Thinking Could Have Helped

    Here is how critical thinking and communication skills could have been used to prevent this media and public relations crisis. Review and keep in mind in case something (hopefully on a much smaller scale) happens at your company.

    1. No one should have been boarded if the flight was still over-booked. Not boarding people is a lot easier than boarding and then asking four people to remove themselves. It was a Sunday before the start of the work week. Everyone had to be somewhere else. Don’t leave it up to volunteers if you’re not going to raise the stakes.
    2. United should have offered a higher voucher amount. Another step up in airline dollars may have garnered more volunteers. To my knowledge, they had not yet hit the maximum they are allowed to go. Throwing another $1,200 ($300-$400 more for each passenger) at the problem would have saved them the millions they are losing today.
      If that doesn’t work, bounce people at the gate using the carrier rules we all agree to when we purchase a ticket. Airlines are allowed to do what they did – just not in the way they did. They can start with those who checked in last and bump those flying on the cheapest tickets. From what I’ve read, medical personnel heading somewhere to treat patients are not supposed to be bumped.
    3. If all that STILL didn’t work, drive your employees or offer to drive the passengers. Chicago is not THAT far from Kansas City. A road trip is a lot easier than saying sorry and paying millions when you bloody a passenger.

    Obviously, United didn’t do this… and that’s why we’re talking about them.

    What could they have done AFTER their mistakes Sunday to avoid this media storm? Here’s a list that you can copy if you have a communications crisis:

    1. Get out in front of the story IMMEDIATELY. You KNOW there is video. There is ALWAYS video.
    2. Get the CEO on TV right away Sunday night or first thing Monday morning to publicly apologize. In this news conference the CEO should say:
      > the company messed up (and deliver this genuinely)
      > there will be an investigation
      > they are going to make this right with the family
      > how they will change their future policies to make sure this does not happen again
      > and assure the public that they are safe doing business with their company.
    3. Publicly make a donation to a group that gives scholarships to future Asian-American doctors who want to further their education.
    4. By today, three days after the crisis, they’re back to the friendly skies.

    No One Should Be Treated This Way

    As a spokesperson and communications director for a major law enforcement agency, this is what we did when there was a crisis. I wrote our communications strategy. It’s not always easy to do — but it’s easier than handling the PR crisis that comes later if you don’t follow a good crisis communications plan.

    So what about the doctor’s past history that I keep reading about today? Does that have anything to do with all this? No.

    No one should be treated this way on a plane heading home to treat their patients – or to do anything else.

    There’s a lot of rumblings going on that United Airlines leaked the doctor’s personal history to the media to deflect what they did Sunday. Could have been the airline – and it could have been journalists. No matter what, it shouldn’t make us feel that he deserved this kind of treatment. He didn’t. Nor did his wife.

    What we all should remember is: we can avoid this from happening inside our companies. Think through the actions and the consequences when you have an internal communications crisis. Five minutes of going through “what’s the absolutely worst thing that can happen if we do this?” can save you millions and a lot of bad media and PR.

    Kathryn Janicek is a media coach, public speaking trainer, national TV producer and media strategist. This piece first appeared here.

    Tagged: pr crisis united airlines united passenger united's pr crisis

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