How United Airlines Could Have Avoided a PR Disaster

Imagine you run an airline. One of your flights is overbooked – a typical revenue maximization strategy. Unexpectedly, you also need to fly four crew members because some pilots at the destination airport got sick and you need a replacement team. You offer cash incentives to the passengers but do not find enough volunteers, even for $800. Your corporate rules limit how high you can go and your employees follow the supposedly unlikely procedure of randomly choosing passengers to be involuntarily removed from the flight. No one is happy to be kicked out of a plane but few physically resist – unfortunately, that’s exactly what happens this time. You are inevitably embroiled in a huge PR problem.

Business schools teach you: PR issues are incredibly hard to manage and prevention is better than a cure. In early March, the Booth Leadership Development center organized a Leadership in Crisis simulation with seven teams working on resolving a strangely similar case. Assuming roles of CEO, Marketing and HR executives and Social Media managers, we had to manage a quickly evolving PR situation where a our company’s good was involved in a tragedy that damaged lives of several people. A team from Hill+Knowton, a communication agency that created the simulation, prepared all elements of a first-class PR crisis: social media exaggerations, fake and true news reports, speculations, and facts release. Our job was to craft messages to different audiences (media, employees, NGOs, the general public etc.), distribute them through appropriate channels, and build alliances with some stakeholders.

Three lessons that I learned from the simulation would be very much applicable to United.

First, respond with a quick public statement quickly and use very clear language. Instead, United ended up creating a widely-mocked euphemism ‘re-accommodate’ that people will remember for a long time.

Second, make sure your internal and external communication is consistent. Any internal email to employees should be assumed to be public and should be released only after you craft the public message. United’s defiant internal message was a stark contrast to its public apologies to customers and made the company look disingenuous.

Third, take responsibility and find a solution that demonstrates empathy (after checking with legal). Public opinion assesses companies by how they managed the crisis aftermath, not by the crisis itself. Perhaps, United can still ‘win’ the situation by enacting well-visible changes.

Last week, the Operations Strategy Group brought fifteen Boothies to United’s headquarters at the Willis Tower to meet several operations managers and tour the Network Operations Center. While our discussion mostly focused on how to make 2+2 equal 3 (by combining LatAm and Asian routes - each of which require two airplanes otherwise), the tension from the incident was palpable.

Interestingly, we learned that only pilots trained by United can operate their airplanes. If the industry managed to commoditize pilots, airlines would not need replacement crews from other cities as they could ‘borrow’ crews from other airlines. Perhaps, as a bigger business strategy, instead of managing PR disasters, United could find a way how to stop ‘re-accommodating’ its customers.

The large screen depicting United flights live sits in the middle of its Network Operations Center. Its sole purpose is to entertain visitors.

The large screen depicting United flights live sits in the middle of its Network Operations Center. Its sole purpose is to entertain visitors.