A lot has been written about the recent United Airlines public relations disaster and most of the so-called Monday morning quarterbacks are correct in their assessments of what should have been done. After a video of 69-year-old Dr. David Dao being violently dragged from his seat went viral, I agree that United CEO Oscar Munoz waited far too long to apologize to the passenger and take responsibility for what happened.
When he finally did speak publicly, it was about United when it should have been about passenger safety and making sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
And even though Munoz stepped up to the plate and announced that all passengers who unfortunately witnessed the upsetting behavior of Chicago security on United Express Flight 3411 will get a refund, his public relations people have completely missed the boat on this one.
If I was advising Mr. Munoz, I would have told him to get on one of his planes and apologize to Dr. Dao in person. Immediately. It would not have eased the turbulence, but it would have made re-entry a little less bumpy.
Very public snafus are nothing new. The speed at which they unfold in the digital age makes early response more critical than ever.
However, early response alone can’t dig a company out of sinkhole. What you say first is equally important. In United’s first statement, Munoz said: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” That makes it about United, not about the passengers.
Perhaps he should have learned a lesson from former BP CEO Tony Hayward’s terrible handling of the Gulf coast oil spill in 2010. Yes, he apologized, but that was followed by “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back.”
Apologies, even when heartfelt, do not make everything okay, especially when the words you use signal that you are sorry for yourself.
In times of crisis, people want leaders who take time to genuinely understand what it feels like to walk in the shoes of those affected by whatever happened. They want the truth, not some legalese version designed to protect the organization. They want to know how companies will fix things moving forward. Like an experienced pilot, trusted to navigate the stormy skies, people want leaders they can trust to make things right.
When I was little and tried to apologize my way out of bad behavior, my mother used to tell me that “actions speak louder than words”. In this case, actions speak louder than PR, which stands for public relations. True PR however, is personal relations. A personal visit to Dr. Dao should have been a top priority.
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