We are often told that the world is a divided place. That we are divided socially, economically and politically at local, national and international level by a plethora of issues from climate change, Brexit, Trump, Syria and on and on. Until this week that is. It has fallen to two corporate giants to bring together people from their individual soapboxes across the world. Thank you Pepsi and thank you United Airlines. Pepsi’s ridiculous new commercial attracted such a biting negative response that it was withdrawn almost immediately. That storm will pass. No such luck for United Airlines, this years hands-down winner of the Ratner Corporate PR award. For United, (Fly the Friendly Skies’), the bad news just keeps coming as spoof ads on social media grow ever more creative. United has now fallen to 68th place in the influential SKYTRAX airline ranking, just one place ahead of Copa Airlines, Panama’s flag carrier and its unlikely to recover anytime soon especially as the story just gets better and better.
Two days ago the traveller in Chicago refused to give up his seat on an overcrowded flight to Louisville, Kentucky, airport security pulled him unceremoniously into the aisle and dragged him by his hands along the floor, bleeding after he cut his head on an armrest. A bit like travelling Ryan Air in reverse really. The fact that the intransigent passenger was supposedly a former doctor struck off for exchanging drugs for gay sex is not particularly a factor in the story, (especially as these smears have been called into question). Obviously, the whole thing was recorded on multiple smartphones. The company’s response was possibly the worst bit of crisis-PR in history. As videos of the bleeding man went viral, Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO and recent winner of ‘best communicator’ award, apologised for having to “re-accommodate” customers. In an internal letter to staff, Mr Munoz said crew had “no choice” in their action and blamed the flyer for not co-operating. Subsequently, with his back nailed to the wall by social media and mainstream US television talk shows, a more sombre apology was issued but is widely felt to be insincere. What probably happened was a phone call from the board, 'Oscar, what in the flying fxck are you doing, get out there, get on your knees and start grovelling. You're booked on breakfast TV, be there.'
Of course, the ejected and somewhat distressed passenger was being tossed off the aircraft to make room for some late arriving United employees. Given the weight of the average American has increased by 20lbs in the last 20 years I did think it odd that they chose the slim Chinese bloke but there you have it. While a travel voucher incentive was offered to volunteers to leave the aircraft passengers were reluctant because the next flight was not due until the following afternoon. Moreover, United failed to offer the incentive up to the maximum Federal limit of $1350. Everyone has a price.
The manner of the passengers ejection perhaps reflects a Homeland Security mindset that pervades everything related to air travel these days. Passengers became commoditised a long time ago and there is little that is pleasurable about flying in the back with any airline. Most of us accept that. The abuse, or exploitation of the whole security mindset though in order to strong-arm ordinary decent passengers is completely unacceptable in any jurisdiction. While I think David Dao is a bit of an arse nothing in this series of events reflects well on United.
Meanwhile, the spoof ads just get better and better and better with more arriving with each hour. Clearly, what has become a classic in corporate PR disasters will be taught in business schools for generations. The interesting aspect is that that while the share price has wobbled it has remained reasonably stable. The airline will lose some business but perhaps the market is taking the view that some temporary ticket price adjustments will eliminate any consumer resistance to the brand. It is risky to be complacent though. Once these brands go into a death spiral it is difficult to recover as others have found. I quietly expect this incident to cost the CEO his job, for the airline to eventually embark on a ‘customer orientated retraining programme,’ (in fact the CEO has announced just that), and for all major companies handling the public to totally rethink their crisis PR strategies. One last thought, the passenger in question arrived in the US from Vietnam after the war and is of an age where he might have fought or experienced war-like violence. If he plays the PTSD card in court in the action he has just launched it good turn into a bigger PR catastrophe.