United Airlines: how PR can still salvage the reputation of the “friendly skies”

One of my favorite ads as a young copywriter back then was an airline ad that shows beautiful silhouettes of a young man set against a colorful sunset, interspersing with a flying aircraft. I couldn’t recall the brand then, but the ad’s jingle lyrics hit me to the core.  It went like this:

When did you last visit your dreams?

Do you remember how big it felt back then?

When the ocean stretched forever

and you found you’ll make it never

get to visit all those dreamers on the other side.

It seems like yesterday,

but it’s much longer; how the years have gone,

but the memories grow ever stronger.

You’re not just flying; you’re flying the friendly skies.

I realize now that it was United Airlines. I won’t go into detail as to what kind of PR nightmare the brand is going through right now because it’s all over the internet already. Very briefly, the key facts are: the airline forcefully dragged a passenger out of his seat, the CEO tried to make a non-apology at first in his first statement, and digital media went haywire. On the other hand, the issue also became fodder for netizens who lashed back at the CEO’s statement with witty and sarcastic mottos or taglines for United.

As of this writing, the CEO has issued a third statement that finally admitted the airline’s mistake and apologized — “deeply” — to the aggrieved customer and the rest of the passengers on that flight. Here is the statement, with my notes in parentheses:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way. (Basic structure: summary of incident, commiseration, apology. Better choice of words this time. Obviously, this statement has passed through the hands of a PR expert)

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right. (Basic structure: the promise to take action. Making this as a separate sentence adds emphasis.)

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th. (Basic structure: detailed promise of action, admission of mistakes, and a specific date — bold move. You’re breaking my heart.)

I promise you we will do better. (Not really necessary, but okay)

Sincerely,

Oscar (I think using just the first name is an overkill. While it makes the statement more human in nature, it loses the credibility of being official since, hello, you’re the CEO!)

Of course, in spite of this polished statement, the damage has already been done. It will take years before United Airlines can get the public’s trust again. With the way information (fake or not) is being disseminated these days via social media, I personally don’t see that happening anytime soon for as long as Oscar Munoz is the CEO. Having said that, removing him from the position will be the first bold move the company can take to show their sincerity. If he resigns, that will be a good move as well.

Second, involve the employees. Looking at the second infamous statement (which was actually an internal memo) closely, I sense that United Airlines looks after its employees and will assume command responsibility when it comes down to it. Since the company has their back, it won’t hurt to involve them in thinking of ways to improve their service. Instill pride in them. It’s their job on the line, too.

Finally, be “friendly” again. Create a campaign involving employees that will show passengers what United Airlines means about being the “friendly skies”. Do it with concrete, sustainable action. Revisit the objectives of that campaign and see how it can be demonstrated in an earnest manner. And don’t talk about it. Let the word about the deeds spread organically. Needless to say, this has to be a long (if not permanent) campaign for people to slowly forget the ugly past.

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