The PR power of “I’m sorry”

Last week I flew to Miami to speak about the power of brands at an IE Law School conference. My flight with American Airlines was uneventful but given what I was due to speak about, it got me thinking about what’s been happening recently with another American airline.

Let’s play a little word association game. If I say “United Airlines,” you say…

Presumably your response – like the rest of the world – is “passenger assaulted and forcibly removed, bleeding from a plane while everyone watched.”

It’s been a torrid few weeks for United Airlines and their chief executive Oscar Munoz, who today is having to testify before Congress and faces a grilling over the incident.

Following a fierce public backlash, United Airlines have now reached a settlement with the aggrieved passenger Dr. David Dao and have also issued new guidelines on customer care following the incident.

Yes, a line may finally have been drawn under this unsavoury saga – but the reputational damage will take much longer to subside.

So what can we learn from United Airlines’ PR nightmare?

The power of digital media

Well, if we didn’t know already, it was certainly a stark reminder that in this digital age, your brand can turn from tip-top to toxic within a few hours if you’re unprepared.

Social media was awash with memes poking fun at United Airlines’ customer service failure and Twitter was quick to rub salt in the wounds with its hashtag #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos.

Across a period of just over two weeks, United Airlines’ reputation went from being “Fly the Friendly Skies” (its slogan, LOL), to an organisation that apparently condones violence and has no remorse for poorly treated customers.

This crisis demonstrates the power of the digital world when it comes to your brand. There’s nowhere to hide if you do something wrong and your mistake will play out publicly across social media.

The rise of digital media means that brands can be tarnished within hours and you need to respond quickly and efficiently to stem the tide of negative publicity.

What I find frustrating is that there is so much the company could have done to make this better.

Obviously, the best thing would have been not to have a policy that allows passengers who have done nothing wrong to be forcibly removed (this has correctly been addressed) but in PR terms the response was much too slow, there was no taking of responsibility and – worst of all – the CEO tried to blame the passenger, despite video evidence to the contrary.

A swift, apologetic response and admission of fault could have saved the tidal wave of negative PR that followed, from other passengers with horror stories about the airline to Chinese customers cutting up their frequent-flier cards, en masse.

Over the last few weeks, any negative story about United was repeated and spread and you can’t help but wonder how much of that could have been prevented if CEO Oscar Munoz had publicly responded with a simple “I’m sorry” instead.

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