Earlier this year I wrote about how companies should handle public relations gaffes. In “And the Winner Isn’t,” I held up PWC as an example of how to handle a PR disaster after one of their executives handed Warren Beatty the envelope for Best Actress instead of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. You’ve probably forgotten about the incident and there’s a good reason for that – PWC owned the mistake and issued an apology – a real apology. Fortunately for PWC, there were lots of other things happening at the time to pique the media’s interest. We’ve moved on.
If only United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, had been paying attention, he could have learned a few things from how PWC handled their debacle.
After a video surfaced showing a bloodied passenger being dragged off one of their overbooked planes by security, a social media firestorm erupted, sparking extensive media coverage and public outcry. Munoz, who ironically was named PRWeek’s Communicator of the Year last month, quickly issued a tone-deaf, non-apology that blamed the customer. This served only to pour gasoline on the fire and prolong a bad story. People already hate the airlines, so why paint a bullseye on your forehead? Self-inflicted injury, handing someone a club to beat you with, shooting yourself in the foot – pick one. Munoz has given this story legs and it’s off and running like Forrest Gump.
I’m sure Mr. Munoz’s comments were reviewed by legal and may have been technically correct. But, it doesn’t matter if you’re technically right – only if you do the right thing. While United Airlines may end up in a courtroom over the incident (and doubtless they will) the real damage comes in the court of public opinion. At the end of the day, people want to hear only three things from you when your company screws up: We did it and we’re sorry. We’ll fix it. We’ll figure out why it happened and make sure it never happens again.