Unless you’re completely media-agnostic, it’s been impossible to avoid the images and video of a doctor being “re-accommodated” by airport police on a United Airlines flight in Chicago on April 9. The disturbing video showing a bloodied Dr. David Dao being dragged to the concourse infiltrated Facebook feeds, morning shows and websites everywhere.
As the imagery from United Express Flight 3411 went viral, the general populace was swelling with anger toward United Airlines. In cases like these, it’s important for companies to respond swiftly in an attempt to quell the outrage.
Instead, United fanned the flames.
There have been some questions as to whether United Airlines was legally in the wrong, and some suggest Dr. Dao might have overstepped his bounds by refusing to deplane. However, the court of public opinion was more swayed by video evidence than legal nuance.
United’s initial response was met with more disdain from the general public for being non-apologetic and tone-deaf. What’s worse is the CEO doubled down on the company’s statement later. After the outrage had reached a fever pitch, United came forth with a much more empathetic statement.
However, it ended up coming too little, too late.
In the aftermath, even more bad customer experiences are emerging, and some stories that normally wouldn’t have gained traction (such as an engaged couple being asked to deplane en route to their wedding) are now front-feed news. Meanwhile, United’s attempts to make the situation right, such as creating new policies governing crew members’ ability to displace customers or refunding all of flight 3411’s tickets, are having a difficult time being heard over the stories of bad customer service.
All of this serves as a case study for crisis communications.
United claimed that it made its initial statement without having all the facts, thereby causing the company to issue a more neutral statement. However, it was nigh impossible someone in that meeting didn’t see the video that had crossed the timelines of millions of people. More damage was done with that video and blasé statement than any refunding of tickets or changing of deplaning policies could fix.
In crisis communications, it’s important to act swiftly, especially in the social media age where it can take less than an hour for an incident to reach millions of eyes. Time, message and action are the three most important elements. The simple fact of the matter is that you’re rarely going to have all the necessary facts before having to make an “informed” statement.
Damage control is more about perception than information, and United Airlines is finding that out the hard way.