As United makes new #PaxEx pledges, PR execs weigh in on #Bumpgate

The unraveling tale of United passenger Dr. David Dao, who was injured and dragged off a United Express aircraft by officers after refusing to give up his seat to accommodate airline crew members, was among other things, the worst kind of nightmare for a public relations department. Caught on video, and widely distributed via social media, the horrific footage created an uproar, but United at first seemed incapable of formulating a proper response.

The airline initially described the assault as a failed attempt to “re-accommodate” the doctor, but did not apologize for his mistreatment on social media. In a memo to employees, United CEO Oscar Munoz doubled down, referring to Dao as “disruptive and belligerent”. But some 30 hours after the incident, Munoz issued an apology and took full responsibility for the forcible removal of the passenger.

Today, United released its report about the incident known as #Bumpgate on Twitter, listing 10 policy changes aimed at improving its customer service, including limiting the use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only; not requiring customers already seated on the plane to give up their seat involuntarily unless safety or security is at risk; and increasing customer compensation incentives for voluntary denied boarding up to $10,000.

“United Airlines takes full responsibility for what happened,” reiterated Munoz in the report.

The laughing stock of social media memes and late night comics, United has learned a hard lesson in the importance of doing and saying the right things at the right time.

“How you respond, and the tone you set, will either calm people down or light them back up,” says a PR executive, who asked not to be named, but who has worked in corporate communications for both a US and a foreign carrier.

“The PR’s shop is to buy some time in order to investigate the event fully. [Say] ‘We are looking into this immediately and will report what we can when it has been verified.'”

The misstep United made was to ignore the basic human rights issue and choose a ‘castle defense’ response instead of showing empathy, she says.

“The most important thing to do when responding to an incident is ‘tell the truth’ and don’t try to bury or cover up the mistake or incident,” says John Lampl, former VP corporate communications British Airways. “Get as many facts as possible – you might have to drip-feed – but be honest.”

Speed is important in acknowledging the incident, which is why an initial placeholder tweet from United would have bought it some time to gather the facts, versus immediately placing it on the defensive.

“But do not make a proper response until you know you are accurate,” suggests Anders Lindstrom, Norwegian’s director of communications USA. Lindstrom previously worked for JetBlue, which has a reputation for its straightforward, responsive corporate communications team. “As long as the audience knows you’re on it and working to find out the answer they need, they are much less frustrated.”

Social media has had a tremendous impact on modern PR. “Most of the time news of an event is around the world in two seconds, and since all the world wants to be a journalist and show what they have seen or shot a hot item on their mobile phone, there’s no covering up and no time to cover up nowadays,” notes Lampl.

During his tenure at BA, Lampl responded to journalists’ queries about engine failures, plane crashes, incidents of unruly or drunken passengers, a bout of food poisoning at the carrier, and even a volcanic eruption. And for these kinds of events, there needs to be a fully prepared team on hand to answer questions – all giving the same answers. “Stick to the bullet point and don’t grandstand. Never make stuff up,” he urges.

Most airlines have a social media strategy in place, but it’s difficult to plan ahead for unforeseen incidents. “But being quick to act does not always mean to react publicly,” says Norwegian’s Lindstrom. “If there is a “negative event” the company needs to ensure a compassionate response.

Social media is a doubled-edged sword. “It’s good because you have awareness – not clarity – almost immediately when something happens,” notes our PR executive. “The bad side of that immediacy is the initial reports of any event are nearly always wrong in a fundamental way. You have to rely on your experience, your knowledge of what should have happened have happened in order to ask the right questions.”

She also stresses the importance of maintaining a strong brand and building trust with reporters on a daily basis. “Monitor your brand health obsessively and keep saving for a rainy day.”

Times have changed and so have some notions of customer service. She says:

The customer is not always right, but the customer is powerful.

Lindstrom agrees, adding. “People are increasingly demanding and they’re getting smarter on how to trick any system to make it work for them.” Still, he says, “If a company makes a mistake, it should own it and compensate where required but the company is also entitled to question behavior.”

It would seem that United is now doing just that.

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