United Air Lines – The Bad News Continues to Dribble Out

By Hank Boerner
April 12, 2017

United Air Lines, need we say, is in the midst of a serious brand and reputational crisis. Social media chatter is replete with those awful loops of passengers’ cell phone videos of “brutality” on a UAL aircraft — and are spreading the bad news worldwide, in a flash!

Broadcast and cable channels had a good run of the story with passenger videos as the highlights of the report on the goings-on in Chicago on Sunday night. Love those ubiquitous cell phone cameras.

How both alarming, and mesmerizing: Who could turn away from the video clips of ham-handed airport security staff dragging a 69 year old paying customer out of his window seat, slamming his head against the seat post, knocking off his glasses, bloodying his face, dragging him down the aisle in front of other passengers. No wonder it went viral – worldwide!

While he (Dr. David Dao) apparently tried to explain at the start of the incident that he was a doctor and needed to get to his patients in Kentucky, airline staff and airport security officers ignored him — and got on with the job.  And so we saw them in action.

Oh, those resulting headlines:

Facebook: (“Man Violently Dragged Off Plane After United Airlines Overbooks Flights!”)

Also reported with the passenger videos on The Huffington Post. “Dragged like a rag doll,” a witness posted on a Twitter account.

Facebook: (“United Airlines CEO Says Cops Will Never Remove a Booked Passenger Again…Will Use Common Sense.”)

A passenger watching the incident told the media: “He said, more of less, I’m being selected because I’m Chinese…”)

All of this is certainly not good news for the airline on the China mainland, where there is wide public outrage being expressed. The doctor clearly being brutally yanked from his window seat – which he paid for and thought he was entitled to — and was apparently of Chinese or Asian origin.

(The devil is in the details; have you ever read the fine print of the Airline Contract of Carriage, which sets out the rights, rules and procedures governing your relationship with an air carrier? Here’s United’s, in case you are considering a flight: https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/contract.aspx )

United and its China Market

United has scheduled flights between the USA and China cities — Chicago/Beijing; Chicago/Shanghai; Denver/Zian; Houston/Hangzhou..,and more city-pairs. United has flights to five mainland China cities from various U.S. cities. In all, UAL has cities to 14 different Asia/Pacific destinations. Not a market to have branding issues in, especially this, with discrimination overtones.

What are the Asian customers of the airline thinking about today? There were almost 300 million immediate “hits’ on Chinese social media — and the story is still “new” and in the current news cycle. A boycott was part of the chatter.

And those passenger-provided cell phone videos continue to play in endless loops on television news media around the world.

As Fox Business reported, “Horrifying Video Threatens United Airlines’ Big Investment in China.”

Speaking from Experience

I’ve worked a good number of years during my career as an airline corporate citizenship manager, spokesman, issues and crisis manager, and marketing strategist. I can’t fathom what would move airline personnel to conduct themselves in such a manner when it comes to dealing with their customers. ( “The flying public,” as one would say,)

Yes,working with passengers, things can get tense. Perhaps the cabin crew was exasperated due to a series of incidents (the “now what”!); maybe the ground crew just wanted to get customers off/employees quickly to avoid criticism (what? you didn’t get the flight crews to Louisville on time?).

Of course, all manner of operational issues come up with an airline company having so many moving parts. Fleets of giant airliners moving through the skies, leaded with passengers; landing and taking off at various airports, large and small; the task of people-scheduling to make sure employees (including flight crew) are at their assigned post for “go on time”; fuel loading; baggage loading/unloading; dealing with changes in weather…and more.

Airlines train and train again to make certain their employees are prepared for “anything.”

And then in an instant it hits the fan and we find out if all that training paid off, are we really ready. Or not! United clearly was in the “not” column this weekend.

The Crisis Details Dribble Out

The details continue to dribble out (the worst scenario in a critical issues situation, of course). The Sunday evening Chicago-Louisville flight (3411) was ready to go and then came the announcement: the plane is over-booked and four passengers need to get off.

The airline’s explanation was that the flight being overbooked (again, not uncommon) meant that four people had to yield their seats. Money was offered (again, not uncommon — it’s the way carriers coax passengers out of their seats).

What happened next? The Washington Post played the story big in the nation’s capital. Where lawmakers, employees of regulatory agencies and other key players could take it all in.

This is an example of where the right or wrong language used is Important — especially in critical incidents.

The Post reported that the airline told the local newspaper in Louisville that the situation was “an involuntary denial of board process.” (Is that clear to you now?).

Apparently no one on the Sunday night flight home to Louisville quickly volunteered to leave their seats. (If you were headed home, would you have gotten up? Maybe – people do that when the price is right.) That’s when the airline “chose” passengers to leave the flight to accommodate four UAL personnel who “had to fly” to get to other aircraft to meet flight schedules.

So, the airline staff selected by some means four people to leave the aircraft.  Three people agreed to leave. When a fourth passenger would not leave his seat, the crew summoned Chicago Department of Aviation security and the man was violently dragged out of his seat and down the aisle and off the plane.

Somehow he got back on the plane, blood on his face, glasses back on, howling it was said, and then was dragged off again. He eventually left the terminal on a stretcher. (The flight will not leave until everyone is off, the cabin crew evidently barked to the passengers.)

When the four crew members came on to fill the vacated seats they were reported to have been booed. Aren’t you ashamed to work for this company, people shouted to them.

The airline began to communicate, sending conflicting messages to the employees and media. (The flight was overbooked; or, the passengers had to make way for United employees. The passenger was belligerent end unruly. The removal was established procedure. The man ran back onto the aircraft in defiance of both our crew and security officials. )

EVERYONE was taken off the plane and after a while re-boarded as the man left on a stretcher. Some did not re-board (they were high school students and their chaperone, the Post said).  The CEO issued an apology to the passengers who were re-accommodated!

Fall Out – Death by a Thousand Cuts

As The Washington Post put it: “It’s a story that has shaken a global air carrier worth billions of dollars – and one that people around the world can find nothing right in at all.”

Investors reacted on Monday, sending the UAL stock downward at once. (CNN: “How to make a PR crisis a total disaster.”)

At the daily news briefing the White House press secretary was asked if a federal investigation was warranted. The U.S. Department of Transportation was looking into the situation, we learned. The late night comedians had new content to add to their stand up routines.

Finally the CEO apologized to the passenger who was “forcibly removed” and to all customers on board the fight. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

Another oops moment the media had fun with: Oscar Munoz, the CEO, was named “Communicator of the Year” by PR Week for “transforming the fortunes of the beleaguered airline, galvanized the staff, and set the airline on a smoother course…” (This after a year-and-a-half on the job.)

Systemic Failure?

Over my four decades of crisis management, one of the things learned early on is that it usually is not a single “thing” that goes wrong. Whatever issues bubbling just beneath the surface can suddenly erupt to complicate the response to the (initial) single incident.

The information from the local scene (usually distant from the where the leaders who have  to respond is ) can be scant; the news reports can be conflicting; the standard comments prepared in advance can sound hollow and uncaring as the details of the incident become more widely known. (“This is standard operating procedure?”   Really?)

Unhappy employees can react to situation irrationally and even violently; local managers can make very “wrong” decisions and then try to correct, making things worse at times.

This was a Sunday evening; management was not likely to be at the office and equipped to move quickly to address the situation and begin communications (not in either the HQs or the airport).

Lessons Learned?

What are the lessons learned? We hope for the Chicago Department of Aviation, it’s don’t go dragging and injuring passengers off a plane because a long-time hometown airline asked you to. The aviation authority had moved quickly to put the security officers involved on administrative leave.

For the airline leadership: Best to always think up and down the value chain about actions taken and communications needed with key constituencies.

Employees (we hope they are viewed as team members and not just numbers in an organization as it grows larger).
Customers (especially those in physical proximity, at the curb, at the counter, boarding the plane, in their seats, during the fight, as they leave the cabin, getting their luggage).
Potential customers (what are they thinking today about their intention to fly United).
The public-at-large (who as they continue to fly in greater numbers and frequency have come to think of airlines as un-caring, faceless bureaucracies that take advantage of the public with planes that are cattle cars in the skies).

Regulators (yes, airlines are still regulated entities).

As for not flying United, we must remember that they have 50% or more market share at some key cities (Newark, New Jersey) and considerable share of market at Orlando, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Denver, Houston. (In 2010 United and Continental merged, creating one of America’s largest airlines.)

Perhaps then we should re-examine the structure of the American airline industry: have the dominant carriers become too big to manage?

Should we explore public policies that would begin to return us to the days of robust competition within the U.S.A. industry to try to ensure greater competition and more “customer-friendly” service?

More accountability by large carriers? Should we devise consumer protection measures that would help to reduce the perception that airlines don’t give a damn about their customers?

These and other questions will likely be raised by public policy experts in the days ahead, as the United situation calms down…and another airline crisis erupts. United meantime is the poster child for everything Americans hate about the airline industry.

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Author Post Script:  July 6, 2017 – ABC News Report

Well, it happens again — United Air Lines accused of abusing a customer today.  A mother traveling with a 27-month old son, en route to Boston from Hawaii, had to hold the boy on her lap for hours of the final leg of the flight.  She bought a ticket for the son — two tickets for the flight, money in the United till.  So what!  Hey, we are overbooked – so hold the kind on your lap. (As unsafe as that is – note, please, federal safety regulators.)  A standby passenger took the boy’s seat.

Later United evidently learned that the boy’s ticket was not properly  scanned.

The woman did explain the situation to the crew.  We wonder what is missing in common sense, good judgment, customer-first (should be) thinking at the carrier.  Oh, and the woman appears to be of Asian background.  United is counting on the Asia market – on China flights — to assure its future.   A small note to think about as you Stay Tuned top United’s passenger treatment.

 

At Crisis Time – For Companies and Celebrities, It’s Usually Not Just One Thing to Deal With

by Hank Boerner

In my career of advising clients on issue management and crisis management (and especially crisis response), I usually pointed out to  those in the crosshairs that it is not just “one thing” to deal with. Often, in time of an escalation of existing issues, a critical event occurring, or a full blown crisis at hand, the managers on point have to deal with numerous things going on.

Chaos, confusion, complexity reign. Things feel, well, like they are spinning out of control.  Often, they are!

Over the years I estimate that I’ve been involved in more than 400 critical issues and crisis situations — in various industries and sectors (auto manufacturing, banking and financial services, airlines, cruise ships, railroads, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, educational institutions, government, countries, mining, food marketing, consumer goods, oil & gas, mutual funds, stock exchanges…and more. Some of my work involves helping individuals cope with crisis eruptions. Those are vary tough assignments – emotional damage is difficult to deal with.

In my issue and crisis preparation training for managers, I stress the key, top line actions for effective response by the enterprise:

  • Know in advance what might go wrong (the potential risk posed to the enterprise or perhaps a leader such as the CEO), and monitor and evaluate those issues regularly. What “is” (facts) will surface one way or another – perhaps by a whistleblower. “Nothing is secret anymore” is my advice.
  • Develop a plan for responding to critical events; assign roles to responders and prepare them (such as with formal training).
  • Build prevention programs. Practice – drill – stress internal preparedness.
  • Establish communication channels and have content ready “in case.”
  • Respond quickly – work to reduce fear; maintain credibility; create positive perceptions where you can.
  • Work hard to control the incident, the crisis. Stress solutions. Demonstrate your values.
  • Communicate – tell your story — if not, others will fill the vacuum and their story…and yours…and set the context in which the story [of the crisis] will be told and retold in the future.

In the context of corporate crises situations, these guidelines have pretty much become SOPs. With my partners, over 25 years we helped many companies in the US and other countries put issue and crisis management programs in place.  There are other consulting practices doing the same. Yes, crisis situations still occur (cases in point including General Motors, BP, Target, the Obamacare launch) but many enterprises really are better prepared to respond that in years past.

But What About Individuals in Crisis?

For individuals involved in crisis situations — especially high wattage celebrities with brand and reputation (and future earnings) on the line — the man or woman in the crosshairs will often find themselves in uncharted territory.

As the ancient mapmakers would put on their charts of the distant oceans — here be dragons!

Right now, comedian Bill Cosby — “America’s Dad” as his brand — is dealing (or, not dealing) with a serious crisis continuing to spin out of control.

Comedian extraordinaire Bill Cosby has not been in hiding.  At 77 years of age, he is still very much in the game.  He’s been doing his one man shows across the country, 50 a year it’s reported  (My wife and I saw his show a few years ago — outstanding!) His books sit ready for purchase in many book stores and retail outlets. His TV series continues to air in syndication.

But recently a series of business decisions put him out front in media reports (of a favorable type) and stirred up allegations of sexual misconduct of years standing. Consider:

  • He was in discussions with NBC to create a new weekly TV series.
  • Netflix, the popular technology and entertainment threat to cable and broadcast dominance, had a special scheduled (“Bill Cosby 77,” featuring the  comedian as MC at the SF Jazz Center last July).
  • His old 1980s family audience TV show was doing well in re-runs (more income generation) on TV Land…possible marketing leverage for a new weekly show on NBC.
  • His books remain popular with readers and are featured in retail and on Amazon.
  • A new biography — “Bill Cosby. His Life and Times” by former CNN news leader and  former Newsweek managing editor Mark Whittaker was on the retail shelves.  Praises for Cosby in the book were by other celebrities who enjoyed cultural admiration — Mary Tyler Moore, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld.

Things were really looking up for the star of I Spy and The Bill Cosby Show, two important cultural foundation stones of many Americans’ youth.

And then…in mid-October comedian Hannibal Buress in a stand-up routine accused Cosby of being a rapist and told the audience to “Google” the record on this; he then went on the Howard Stern program on Sirius XM to repeat his charges, and pushed his views out on Twitter; The Philadelphia Inquirer “old media” giant posted the routine and the social media platforms it up.

Author Whittaker’s biography was publicly attacked by the National Review as “fawning,” glossing over the many rumors over the years about Mr. Cosby’s misconduct, and tagged the author as the “latest enabler.”  The article went viral in the nation’s politically conservative community.

Back in 2006, Philadelphia magazine published an article detailing the alleged attacks on more than a dozen women by the comedian.  The Montgomery County (Pennsylvania) district attorney (Bruce Castor) investigated claims and declined prosecution; he now has to publicly defend his prior decision.  A civil lawsuit proceeded with [there was said to be up] to 13 women that could be involved; that case was settled and sealed.

One of the women — Barbara Bowman — went public in November, publishing a commentary about her experience in The Washington Post.  That got other traditional and new media lighting up with more “news” and lots of commentary.

Other women then stepped forward — a dozen or so — repeating their stories of years ago or going public with their stories for the first time.

And the Google searches suggested by comedian Burress?  There were millions of searches, according to media reports..

Reaction was comparatively swift:

The NBC series – cancelled.  The Netflix special – cancelled. The interview with David Letterman on CBS – cancelled. The new biography’s sales were reported to be slumping. TV Land  re-runs – cancelled.

Author Whittaker’s  new biography was attacked by the National Review as “fawning,” glossing over the many rumors over the years about misconduct, and tagged the author as the “latest enabler.”  The conservative publication’s article went viral, especially within the nation’s politically conservative community.

All of sudden another “old” scandal was back in focus for the right wing:  former President Bill Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades — sure to haunt Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential race, the post writers opined. (We’ll see Paula and Monica and the other “Bill Clinton women” on  parade over the coming years, they predicted.)

The Cosby camp did respond on social media — a Twitter post encouraged the Twitter-ali to go to a web page and post comments.  They did!  Oh, not the comments that supporters would welcome, of course.

The New York Times published an in-depth story on all of this on November 20 — “Cosby Comeback Unravels as Rape Claims Flare.” The Times noted the long tail of the controversy: “The current furor surfaced surrounding Mr. Cosby had its root in accusations brought in 2005 by Andrea Constand, a female staff member with the basket ball team at Temple University (Cosby alma mater).” Despite DA Castor’s declining to prosecute, she brought a lawsuit that would possibly involve up to13 other “Jane Does.”  That was the was the civil case settled.  The “Jane Does” we can presume are those coming forward – and those planning to do so in the future.

Context is important in these matters.  And as I compose this, the news headlines scream out another complicating factor that is shaping in various ways public opinion:  “University of Virginia Suspends All Fraternities” – this after the still-remarkably relevant Rolling Stone magazine published a report that a female student was sexually assaulted by seven Phil Kappa Psi members in 2012.  The university president — a woman, by the way, Teresa Sullivan — called on her board, students, faculty, alumni…to begin a conversation on all of this.

That can be alongside the conversation about allegations or the reality of wife and child abuse by National Football League players…these have been glossed over, ignored, diminished…until there was sufficient public outrage and an apology by NFL leader Roger Goodell.  The viral video of Ravens player Ray Rice shown beating his fiancé/now wife in a casino triggered the crisis, which had been brewing for years if you think about it as anti-domestic violence advocates do.

Consider the Bold Names – Collateral Damage

Take a few seconds to read upward — note all the BOLD names in the commentary. Think about the rippling effects of the Bill Cosby crises.  The NFL crisis. The crisis today at the University of Virginia — and other universities where similar incidents have been charged by female students.  .The corporations involved with brands and revenues on the line now. The other celebrities praising Mr. Cosby.

The Role of Social Media and the Internet

Back to the Cosby case:  why are decades-old, or at least five or more years old cases being brought front and center today?  I think a profound difference is the omnipresence today of social media.  Citizen media. Everyman (and woman) media. The challenge of old media (The Washington Post, The New York Times) by new platforms like Huffington Post, even Twitter (as news source for millions of user, specially younger populations)..

We still have venerable TV national news forums  like those in the evening on CBS, NBC, ABC. (With great anchors — Scott Pelley, Brian Williams David Muir).  But since the 1980s we have 24/7 CNN as well…and many young people get their news from other “anchors” like Bill Maher (HBO) and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert (Comedy Central).  And I would throw in Saturday Night Live! parodies on NBC. On these new news platforms, humor and satire are the staples and celebrities in crisis should expect to be skewered.

But citizen media (social media) is really now the key to setting the match to a smoldering situation.  That applies to be companies like BP and celebrities like BC. As The Times’ Bill Carter, Graham Bowley and Lorne Manley noted in their November 20th Page One story: “The reach of web and social media impact have provided a distribution platform for these accusations, which had surfaced before but never gained widespread attention.”

And Martin Kaplan of the University of California’s journalism school noted: “The combination of [today’s] social media and Mr. Cosby’s return to the spotlight had propelled the story to much greater prominence that when the accusation first surfaced.”

As I said up top…Chaos, confusion, complexity reign.  UC’s Professor Kaplan explained: “The fact that he was already in the spotlight and the fact that these charges have a much more powerful amplifier and echo chamber, gives people the sense that this is a big story…”

Going back to the basic principles for crisis management — if in fact the allegations of the women accusing Mr. Cosby of serious sexual misconduct have a factual basis, as a celebrity (and therefore a “public person”) it might have been better to continue one’s career in lower profile.  In crisis management, over and over again, the lesson for leaders is clear:”what is, is” – and will come out at some time.

What are your thoughts on all this? What are the lessons learned?