When Apologies Come Too Late

It takes years to build a brand but moments to take it down

By Jo Trizila, CEO of TrizCom Public Relations & Pitch PR

If your Facebook feed is anything like mine, you have seen the United Airlines parodies and the memes circulating this week. Since Monday, you haven’t been able to turn on the news and not see something about the United crisis. And, if you are like me, you shake your head in disgust that this crisis could have been vastly minimized – so much so that it might have only been a quick mention on the news. Instead, this situation will be printed in their Wikipedia history page.

For a recap of the United Airlines Flight 3411 communications, read The Washington Post story: The full timeline of how social media turned United into the biggest story in the country.

Please note, I am NOT saying that the actions taken by the crew and staff of United Airlines Flight 3411 were OK. As in most crisis situations where the brand is at fault, the actions are almost never OK. However, the way a brand approaches a crisis can set the tone for the entire event.

United Airlines created their own crisis. Had the CEO come out Sunday night or – heck – even Monday morning and owned the situation by stating how deplorable this incident was and how it will never happen again on a United Airlines plane, this topic would not have spun out of control like it has. However, the CEO’s first few statement(s) were about United Airlines’ legal rights, employee policy and how they are looking into the situation. These statements don’t offer much consumer confidence. The CEO totally forgot that PR is about perception. The public is thinking "this could happen to me, and this company doesn’t care anything about its passengers.”

In an age where video is going to happen and social media breaks news, owning responsibility is critical. And even more critical is owning responsibility quickly. If you made a mistake, say that. We have all made mistakes. But shifting the blame is unacceptable.

Here are a few of my thoughts on how this crisis could have been handled differently.

  1. The social media team should have a plan in place for issue management (an issue is defined as something that could escalate to a crisis). This plan would, of course, have the appropriate people to contact including the PR team (internal and external). Brands need to respond quickly. Waiting an hour to respond (as United did) is unacceptable – even if it is only asking for more information.
  2. It is very clear that the legal department was involved with the CEO’s statements. Let legal do their thing; let PR handle public perception. This was the first statement that came out from United (note, at this point the video was going viral), “Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.” There is no apology and absolutely zero care or concern for the passenger(s) of Flight 3411.
  3. Again, when the CEO issued his statement, it was all about how his employees followed procedure. Obviously, United’s policy is flawed. The perception is: United doesn’t care at all about the passengers it serves, it only cares that its employees followed policy. The CEO statements were self-serving.  This so reminds me of the BP’s apology.
  4. Not until Tuesday did the CEO apologize – reversing his previous statements. From a consumer perspective, this apology has no merit. It only came after reports that he should be fired and after the company saw the financial repercussions.
  5. Wednesday morning, the CEO made his rounds on morning television – apologizing profusely. Unfortunately, this apology came way too late and is not believable. United has lost the trust of its customers, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but sometimes it is too late to do the right thing. Do you believe his apology? Check out the story that aired on Wednesday (4/12/17) on Good Morning America, United CEO Oscar Munoz felt 'shame' to see passenger dragged off flight.

In my opinion, the only winner of this crisis was Pepsi. From Wednesday to Sunday, the topic of conversation was Pepsi’s ad. Now, no one is talking about Pepsi – well, except the memes.

For more information:  

Crisis Social Media – You Need to Have a Plan

OU and SAE, The National Organization, Got It Right

Responding to Customer Complaints on Social Media

Not the Vacation I Planned: Tragedy Transitions Vacationing PR Pro into Media Relations Juggernaut

Check out Dallas Business Journal’s What a drag: How United turned a $1,000 inconvenience into a hundreds-of-millions crisis