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Did American Airlines Profit from United’s Poor Example?

[By Nora Jacobs, Hennes Communications]

This past weekend provided the crisis communications profession with a Petri dish-like opportunity to study the way two almost identical organizations managed two almost identical situations less than two weeks apart. If we had devised an experiment using the scientific method, we probably could not have created a more precise opportunity to observe how an organization’s response to a crisis event affects its outcome.

First, of course, was the April 9 incident involving United Airlines, when a passenger was dragged off a plane after refusing to yield his seat to a United employee seeking transit to the plane’s destination city. Last Friday, April 21, a flight attendant on American Airlines practically incited a melee after he wrested an over-size stroller from a mother boarding the flight – nearly hitting the infant in her arms in the process – and then dared another passenger to deck him after the passenger came to the woman’s defense.

What do these two events have in common? First, both were caused by employees on the scene who used their own judgement to resolve situations they perceived to violate company policy. Both events were captured by citizen journalists on the flights who used their mobile phones to record and upload eyewitness accounts to social media, where they eventually were viewed by a global audience.  Finally, both events became lead news items, with both gaining sustained coverage from broadcast and print outlets that gave the jaw-dropping videos even more exposure.

It is at this point, however, that the similarity between these two events ends. Not only did United severely injure a paying passenger, the company initially refused to offer any sort of authentic apology for the manner in which the passenger was treated.  Initial statements from the company were cloaked in corporate-speak, with the only redeeming value being that the phrase “re-accommodated” now stands a real chance of being added to the Oxford Dictionary list of new words for 2018.  United was steadfast in defending the action its employees took, blamed the victim and didn’t even retrieve the passenger’s luggage when he was jettisoned from the plane.  United issued a more sincere, abject apology two days later, but only after the company’s stock price plunged, late night TV and the Twitterverse piled on, worldwide scorn continued unabated and the passenger retained legal counsel.

Consider instead, American Airline’s response to an uncannily similar situation: within hours, the airline issued a statement apologizing “for the pain we have caused this passenger and her family and to any other customers affected by the incident.”  The company announced that it had moved the woman and her family to another flight and had upgraded them to first class for the duration of their international trip.  The employee in question was suspended pending an investigation of the incident. That apology was widely reported in initial news accounts of the incident, which is still being covered by the media as this piece is being written.

Social media, of course, did not spare American.  There is probably no more hated industry today than the airline industry, so any instance of passenger mistreatment provides a ready opportunity for customers to vent about their on-board experiences, related or not. But it will be interesting to compare the half-life of the American incident to that of United’s and we suspect American’s reputation will be rehabilitated a lot faster than United’s.  In fact, we imagine space is already being reserved for the United incident in the Crisis Communications Hall of Shame alongside examples like BP’s Deepwater Horizon debacle and Volkswagen’s emissions scandal.

For those on the sidelines, both incidents provide some very tangible lessons for effective crisis management.  Responding quickly and authentically is the most obvious.  Taking responsibility and pledging to take corrective action is a close second.  But in this case, another lesson presents itself:  if your organization includes customer-facing employees (are there any that don’t?), recognize that this is one of your largest vulnerabilities.  Even the best-trained individuals, working for companies with the best values and perks, can snap under certain circumstances.  Your only defense is to be prepared to respond to that possibility in a way that does not cause the type of self-inflicted harm United is experiencing.

We don’t know if American used the United case study to shape its response to last week’s stroller incident, but it’s hard to imagine United’s response to Dr. Dao hasn’t been Topic #1 in HR and communications departments throughout the airline industry since it happened.  Or at least it should have been.  We know we’ll be talking about for quite some time to come.

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Nora Jacobs, APR, is senior vice president of Hennes Communications, one of the few firms in the U.S. focused exclusively on crisis management and communications.

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