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United Apology sparks outrage

11th Apr 17

By Geoffrey Stackhouse, Managing Director, Clarity Solutions

In a crisis, an apology is your main line of defence - but you have to get it right. This week's United Airlines fiasco is another textbook example of what NOT do.

The United incident, and ensuring 'apologies' from the Airline show how easy it it so inflame public outrage with a faux apology. Fuelling the fire has led to calls for a boycott of the airline.

A passenger was literally dragged off a flight he had legitimately booked, just so the airline could make room for a couple of staff on an otherwise full plan. You can check out the video footage here.  When he refused to give up his seat he was forcibly ejected from the plan, despite being a doctor with patients to see at his destination. 

Here's the thing about apologies: They have to hit the hurt. What's the offence here that fuels public outrage?

For me that outrage is violently manhandling an innocent passenger so some cabin crew could get a free ride. But United apologised for 'overbooking' - not the real offence, an act of violence against a passenger. And that made the twitterverse incandescent with rage.

When that didn't work the CEO stepped in to say it louder.

This statement completely fails to address the legitimate outrage. It focuses on United not their passengers and makes no effort to explain that passengers are generally treated with respect.  

So what should you do differently?

  1. Hit the hurt: Work out what's outraged the public and address it directly.
  2. Show you get it: Tell me what you are doing for the passenger and what you have learned from this incident to ensure it never happens again.
  3. Walk your values: United has pages of values statements, including this one in their passenger charter which this week's actions have shown are simply untrue. [We will] ... Treat passengers fairly and consistently in the case of oversales

Will this be a storm in a twittercup or have long lasting brand damage? Only time will tell, but if United keeps pouring petrol on the issue it won't go away any time soon.

You might also like to read:

Air Canada's Crisis shows an ugly culture

The interview that wiped US$3 Billion from the share price

Alex Perry's dummy spit burns his brand

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