Does United Airlines really have a PR problem?

April 12, 2017

By: Angela Carmichael

Two days have passed since the now-infamous United Airlines incident and as professional communicators, it is important to glean as many lessons as possible from this disturbing event. The most important point I want to address is that the overwhelming coverage of this event as a ‘PR disaster’ is somewhat misguided and perhaps overly simplistic. A PR disaster is never simply about the wording of a statement or the speed in which an apology is issued – it is often symptomatic of deeper root causes that the company must address.

Public relations and crisis communications goes far beyond words on a page – it is about building a strong corporate culture grounded in core values and a foundation of leadership, training and a never-wavering commitment to customers. That is why I believe that the well-documented failings of the past 48 hours have focused too heavily on surface-level tactical issues without talking about the hard foundational work that companies and their partners must do in order to either directly address events like this immediately and authentically, or ideally to prevent them from taking place at all.

Message vs. Story

When we work with clients on message development, we focus heavily on the difference between stating corporate messages and telling your corporate story. The vast majority of corporate messages focus exclusively on the corporation itself: on the work that it’s doing, its latest accomplishments, etc. In this regard, corporate messages are often insular. A corporate story takes a broader view, first considering the world around the organization, then its larger role within that world and its impact on the people who live in it. A corporate story provides a sense of purpose and meaning behind corporate messages by helping the communicator and the audience understand the context for them, therefore making those messages more approachable, believable and palatable.

Identifying that corporate story should involve as many employees as possible, and it should reflect a culture that empowers them to do the very best for their customers, regardless of industry. If a company has difficulty telling an authentic, powerful story that reflects its role in the broader environment it operates in, it likely has deeper challenges it needs to address.

Employee Empowerment

With this particular incident, employees of United’s partner Republic Airlines (who operated the flight) were not empowered to do the very best for their customers. They actually followed their own rule book exactly. But the employees felt empowered to remove the four passengers at all costs, likely because they were trained to do this, had done this previously and felt they had to adhere to company policies. Truly living the motto of “Flying the Friendly Skies” would have meant de-escalating the situation by putting the customer’s wellbeing first.

Authenticity from the Beginning

Once the event took place, previous crisis preparation (assuming some level of preparation occurred) should have been immediately enacted: gathering all of the key facts, involving the most senior leaders and prioritizing transparency. The CEO in any crisis situation needs to live up to a “the buck stops here” mentality and directly address the key facts in a human way through as many mediums as possible. And, perhaps most importantly, the message delivered needs to be authentic, recognizing the reason that what happened was so wrong, why it struck such a cord with the public and what will be done to prevent it from happening again.

In a series of statements over two days we’ve seen United’s tone and messaging shift, culminating in a Good Morning America interview on April 12th in which the CEO finally admits that what happened was unacceptable and outlining future steps to prevent it. But the previous word crafting was obviously inauthentic to the public and media. As viciously swift as social media is, society does continue to have a high capacity for forgiveness. But a company like United Airlines, which operates in an industry with low public support, needs to go above and beyond people’s preconceived expectations. There are rarely second chances, and as we’ve seen, clarifications are usually perceived as simple ‘damage control.’

Key Takeaways

Incidents like this, while terrible for those directly involved, do present an opportunity for others to improve their own preparation. It should provoke a conversation amongst all communications professionals about organizational guidelines and the never-ending soul-searching that should take place internally to constantly test corporate values, training and leadership. Does your company or your client’s story match what they actually deliver? The many companies that have crowd control or customer service practices along this line should make sure that all policies are re-examined in light of this event. And if they already have the right policies, culture and leadership in place, which United Airlines probably thought they had, brushing up on training is always a good idea.

As PR professionals, the conversation needs to go to the very core of an organization’s mandate, constantly testing its story and helping bring it closer to a truly authentic relationship with its customers. It is incumbent on all of us to share this example, reinforce the importance of crisis planning and re-channel the finger wagging into new initiatives that protect the reputations of our clients or our own organizations.


Angela Carmichael is General Manager & Senior Partner at FleishmanHillard Toronto. She can be reached at