United Airlines has been battling a firestorm of public criticism following an incident on Sunday when one of its passengers was forcibly removed from an overbooked flight. Several videos surfaced on social media showing a man being dragged out of his seat and through the aisle by several security officers, as other passengers watched in disbelief.
The story quickly received nationwide coverage, turning into a full-blown PR crisis for the company. Following traditional crisis communications practices, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz issued an apology on Monday afternoon:
United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411. pic.twitter.com/rF5gNIvVd0
— United (@united) April 10, 2017
However, the tone-deaf statement did little to help mitigate the situation. Particularly, Munoz’s choice to use the word “re-accommodate” seems to have struck a nerve with many people who voiced their frustration on social media.
— CeejTankGaming (@CeejTankGaming) April 10, 2017
Nice to know "re-accomodate" on United now means "drag you violently out of your seat."
— Meg ♥️ (@sassylibrarian1) April 10, 2017
"…having to re-accommodate?" That's what we're calling it? https://t.co/KotBnQYpF5
— Joe Thomas (@joethomas73) April 10, 2017
Apologies have always been one of the most effective tools in a crisis communicator’s toolkit. However, as this incident shows, all apologies are not created equal. To be effective, an apology must not only be timely, but it must also be perceived as heartfelt and express empathy for those affected by the incident.
In the case of United Airlines, Munoz’s statement failed to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of the company or sympathize with the passenger who was dragged out of the plane. As a result, Munoz’s apology not only fell flat, but also further exacerbated the public relations crisis for the brand.