United Airlines: A PA disaster?

By Matt Young, Lansons

By now the viral video of United Airlines’ passenger David Dao being forcibly dragged off an over booked aircraft has been seen by millions of people across the world. Hundreds of thousands of Twitter users have had their say on the episode, while it has also taken up countless column inches globally.

In the days since the incident, commentary has shifted away from the behaviour of United’s staff to the remarkably underwhelming response by the firm’s CEO Oscar Munoz, whose initial reaction was to seemingly blame the passenger, calling him “disruptive and belligerent”. Only now, days after the video surfaced, has Munoz offered a proper apology, stating that “the shame and embarrassment” was now palpable to him and that Mr Dao himself deserved an apology.

As the BBC put it, United has become enveloped in a classic ‘PR disaster’ – a bad incident made worse by the faltering public relations response to it. If ever there was evidence of PR’s role in defending the integrity of corporate brands, one need only point to the fact that today, the calls of resignation are pointed firmly at Munoz, rather than to the heavy handed staff members who removed Mr Dao from the aircraft.

But what has been the political and stakeholder reaction, and does it matter? The job of public affairs professionals is in large part to build third party advocacy for a client’s brand. As has always been the case, if you have something to say, get others to say it for you.

No doubt United, alongside a well-established internal PR team, will have a dedicated PA function that, like many firms, will have worked tirelessly over many years to build advocacy and goodwill within Congress, as well as (more recently) within the new U.S. administration with whom it may not yet have established relationships. Therefore whatever agendas it was pursuing with those individuals at the time the video surfaced, are surely now in serious jeopardy, particularly if those campaigns relied on outward shows of public support for the company and its objectives.

It may not appear obvious, but there is a diplomatic dimension to this as well. Despite it later transpiring that Mr Dao was a Vietnamese citizen, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said the Chinese Government had noticed the “unfortunate incident”. Hardly a geo-political crisis, but the fact that the Chinese Government thought it necessary to comment publically is still likely to have intensified the ire of the US Government towards United.

In short, the stakeholder reaction does matter. While the media reaction has been manifestly more conspicuous, the incident is likely to set back lobbying campaigns that United currently has underway, however far removed they are from what occurred on flight 3411. It is perhaps a reminder that any response to a public crisis, such as has befallen United, cannot just rely on effective media engagement (which United patently didn’t do) but must equally consider swift and effective engagement with its most important stakeholders.