United doesn’t have a PR problem; it’s far worse than that

United Airline PR Problem

I have attorney friends who are regularly queried about one high-profile legal case or another. Will the latest version of the president’s travel ban hold up in court? Is North Carolina’s bathroom bill constitutional? Will O.J. ever make parole? Once you get your law degree, I suppose such questions come with the territory.

So it is with public relations professionals, and so when a United Airlines passenger of Chinese descent is dragged forcibly from his seat to the horror of onlooking passengers, folks like me get the predictable questions about how we’d address United’s “PR problem.”

But to my mind, United doesn’t have a PR problem – or perhaps better put, United’s problems go so much deeper than public relations. Calling this episode a “PR problem” suggests that this is all somehow a communications issue, that certain well-crafted statements and a few well-meaning gestures of contrition and compensation will somehow make all of this go away.

Not likely.

United’s problems go much, much deeper. This incident has exposed a corporate culture that belies the brand they have spent billions to build – “the friendly skies.” The image projected by the company’s advertising and its pre-takeoff videos featuring smiling, perfectly coiffed pilots and flight attendants welcoming you aboard, all of that has been displaced by the grainy video of a bespectacled physician bleeding and screaming as he is lugged down the aisle.

As part of its “commitment to our customers,” United says that “our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.” They may have fallen a bit short on that flight from Chicago to Louisville, not only for the bewildered passenger but for every other person on that plane. It’s one thing to make a “commitment,” it’s quite another to embed the values and behavior that actually reflect that commitment, to place a higher priority on the passenger experience than on resorting to force in order to put four United employees in seats occupied by your paying customers.

All of this is not to say that public relations cannot now help United. Click To Tweet But ironically, the PR steps the company took out of the gate were so tone deaf as to defy credulity. You can certainly make the case that the passenger’s behavior was not in keeping with what is expected of the flying public, but blaming the victim in this case is not going to win the company any points, nor is calling the physical removal of an individual from his seat “re-accommodating” him. (Hadn’t anyone in the room who approved that statement actually seen the video?) And how about this beautiful piece of irony: the CEO whose name was on that statement was named last month as “Communicator of the Year” by PR Week. (So now does PR Week have a PR problem?)

United must spend the days and weeks ahead assessing its priorities and values and begin taking steps to live up to its customer commitment. The public’s invective and its satirical response on the internet shows the depth of the hole that the company has dug for itself. It’s my guess that O.J. will be out of jail by the time United is able to put all of this behind it.

Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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