Perhaps United Airlines Should Look Back to 1990 for What to Do in 2017

By Edward M. Bury, APR (aka The PRDude)

By now, you’ve probably read, viewed and commented on reports related to what may go down as one of the most significant corporate communication and operational blunders of recent times.

Yes, I’m referring to the forceful removal of a United Airlines passenger April 9 from a flight departing Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport for Louisville, Kentucky.

Image courtesy of the United Airlines website.

You know what happened to cause this now sustained crisis for United Airlines, which according to this news story operates some 4,500 flights a day. So, I’ll dispense with any background.  A quick Google search for “United Airlines crisis” will result in lots of results — 2,590,000 in fact as of this evening.

(An aside: On a visit to the company’s online newsroom I found only one reference to the incident that took place on United Express Flight 3411, and that was a statement from CEO Oscar Munoz.)

Many have branded this story as a “PR disaster.” And, from some perspectives, that’s totally correct: United is getting lots of negative publicity and social media exposure for what took place Sunday.  Initial crisis mitigation strategies and tactics were poor — at best.

But those of us who work in public relations know that communications can’t be disseminated without management approval.  Perhaps more effective and compassionate actions and messages were prepared but tabled in favor of what did take place: The initial rather curt message from Mr. Munoz, followed by a more conciliatory comment.

I’ll let those with the proven skills in crisis management comment on what United Airlines should do next. But I would like to share the video below. It’s from a 60-second television commercial for United first aired in 1990.  The title is “Speech,” and the spot was produced by the airline’s longtime agency of record, Chicago’s own Leo Burnett.

Two aspects of this brilliant spot are especially poignant for United Airlines today:

1. When company owner Ben says, “Well folks, some things gotta change.”

2. When the voice over narrator says, “Personal services deserves a lot more than lip service.”

I think United Airlines could learn a lot by revisiting this 27-year-old spot.

NOTE: This video was found via a YouTube search.