Why United’s PR Disaster Didn’t Fly

In Time of Crisis CEOs Must Exercise Extreme Ownership

United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz apologized Tuesday afternoon to the doctor who was forcibly removed from an over-packed Chicago-to-Louisville flight on Sunday.

Muñoz called it a “truly horrific event.” “No one should ever be mistreated this way,” he said, pledging on behalf of his company, “we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.” United would “fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

But will that be enough to restore the billion-plus in lost market value and regain the trust of countless consumers? It’s hard to tell at this point because of how badly he bungled the crisis when it mattered most.

How Not to Apologize

Muñoz initially offered a defensive, legalistic apology Monday in public and then backpedaled on most of that in a letter to employees that quickly leaked to the public.

In that letter, Muñoz called his customer, Dr. David Dao, “disruptive and belligerent.” He said that United employees “followed established procedures” in calling in airport security who “were unable to gain his cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist.”

Airport security did this by bloodying Dao and dragging him down the aisle of the plane. Outraged passengers whipped out their smartphones and let the world see what was happening.

By first evading responsibility for the situation, Muñoz turned a terrible mistake that could have cost United thousands of dollars into one already costing hundreds of millions and which could easily end his job.

Own the Narrative

While it’s good to see United’s CEO do the right thing, even belatedly, the rest of us can take a lesson right now from his mismanagement of the crisis. If circumstances ever force you to address a public disaster, take a deep breath first and remember these three facts.

  1. There’s always a narrative. That’s especially true in times of crisis. People are going to tell stories about your organization, some of which you know are off-base, false, or agenda-driven.

    The important thing to know is this: In the middle of the crisis, nobody cares what you think about that. In fact, what you have to say isn’t going to break through that narrative unless you recognize the second fact.

  2. Extreme ownership is the only way to control the narrative. Take a page out of the Navy SEALs and own the failure. Take full responsibility from word one. Say,

    Something went terribly wrong here. The full responsibility lies with my organization—specifically with me. We will do whatever it takes to make things right and learn from this experience so that it never happens again.

    A sincere statement like that throws water on the fire—maybe not enough to put out all the flames, but enough to keep them from burning down your organization.

  3. You can correct false narratives, judiciously. You have to be careful here. It’s easy for it to come off like excuse making. But if you fully own the problem, you might earn enough credibility in the moment to address angles and solutions that steer the narrative your direction.

    If Muñoz had exercised extreme ownership from the start, he would have been in a much better position to tell a positive story about how his airline normally works and will work better going forward.

What Might Have Been

When critics snark, “Why not stop overbooking instead of beating up passengers when you do? Oh right. Money,” Muñoz might have shown how overbooking really isn’t the problem here.

Instead, after owning mishandling the situation with Dao, Muñoz might have shown how the modern overbooking/bidding system has been a boon to consumers. It ensures fares aren’t inflated to cover empty seats and that flights aren’t grounded in the event of accidental overbooking. People forget, but that’s how it used to work—costly and inconvenient.

Even when the bidding system doesn’t work, federal law mandates involuntarily bumped passengers are owed several times what they paid for the fare. Editor David Freddoso recently gave up his seat and ended up “about $1,200 better off for the experience.”

An airline CEO should know this side of the narrative better than anyone. But he lost the chance to look generous, humane, or even remotely sympathetic. No one will care about anything he says going forward—even if it's to their benefit. Why? Because he squandered the only real chance he had at restoring trust.

Remember, there’s always a narrative. Leaders who exercise extreme ownership can prevent a bad situation from becoming a tragedy. Do the right thing the first time and you might even end up as the good guy in the story.

How would you have handled the United situation?

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