United Airlines CEO letter – the opposite of damage control

Among all the examples of poor treatment of airline customers, the violent dragging of passenger off a United Airlines flight on Monday, leaving him bloodied and shocked, is surely one of the most outrageous.  And perhaps one of the most expensive.  United Airlines shares have plummeted, wiping almost a billion dollars from the holding company’s value, according to The Guardian newspaper.

To add to the company’s woes, the CEO of the airline has managed to add fuel to the raging Twitter-fire that’s now engulfing the company by praising his employees in a letter to staff.  The passenger had declined the offer of compensation in exchange for leaving the flight and getting a later one, so that additional United Airlines crew members could board.  So he was forcibly removed, whilst incredulous passengers looked on and filmed the incident.

(PA images: Oscar Munoz, Chief Executive Officer, United Airlines)

The subsequent letter from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is breathtakingly inappropriate, for all the following reasons:

                       THE LETTER:                                                                         THE PROBLEM:

“Dear Team,

Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville.

 ·  No compassion for the feelings, injuries of the customer

·  Reveals the CEO’s priority is not passengers but actually himself and his staff

While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees.

·  Confirming that facts are still emerging but blaming the passenger for “defying” security staff

·  Focus on the account of employees only and no reference to evidence from shocked and objecting passengers

As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help.

· Complete lack of empathy with the injured passenger

·  Blaming the passenger without knowing all the facts

Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. 

· Cold, business language that makes the company seem heartless

· Suggests this is how passengers should expect to be treated

While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

· Belated concern about the situation

· No concern for the passenger

· Inappropriately commending staff whilst video and images are circulating of bloodied customer

I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. 

· Belated admission that the company needs to learn lessons

· Admission that the company is still working out what happened, even though United is already clearly blaming the passenger

Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation.

Oscar”

· Lacks credibility as this declaration cannot be reconciled with the video footage of the United Airlines passenger being bloodied and man-handled

When something like this incident takes place any sensible organisation would go into damage limitation mode, so as to reduce the inevitable harm to its image and reputation.  Instead, United Airlines stands accused of being “painfully tone-deaf” and “absolutely untethered from reality”.

Here’s what the United Airlines boss should have done, using the ‘CAP’ technique

Show Concern

  • Whether the passenger was to blame or not, no company can afford to appear unconcerned if one of its customers is roughly treated or injured on their premises. An expression of regret that the passenger may have been hurt should be the very first thing Oscar Munoz said in his letter to United Airlines staff, followed by a clear statement that this is not what the company wishes to see happen
  • He would also have been wise to avoid blaming the customer as not all the facts are known about what happened, as he himself admitted. If the passenger is blameless, there’s more heat to come for United Airlines, including further negative media coverage, scorn across social media and perhaps legal action
  • Another way to show empathy is to making it clear that the airline understands how frustrating/inconvenient it can be for a passenger to be asked to leave their flight

Focus on Action

  • It should be made clear early on what the company is doing about the situation. This may be that they are gathering the facts by speaking to staff and passengers about what happened
  • Mr Munoz should have made it clear that the airline will give a full account of what happened, when all the facts are clear and not before

Give appropriate Perspective

  • Once it’s clear that the company feels compassion and that passengers’ interests and well-being are the main priority, giving appropriate perspective helps the organisation to give its side of the story. In this case, Mr Munoz should have explained why passengers are sometimes asked to disembark and whether this is voluntary or compulsory
  • The CEO could have started to distance itself from the incident by explicitly stating that the Chicago Aviation Security Officers were not employees of the airline. Instead, he talks about “our crew and security officials” which suggests that they were acting in concert and were all involved in dragging and injuring the passenger.

Bridgid Nzekwu is Head of Media Training at TNR, part of the Press Association.  For more information about our media training courses or to book one, contact us at: Hello@wearetnr.com  or visit our website: www.wearetnr.com/media-training

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