An $800 million apology comes too late—even the second or third time around



Would Warren Buffett, the man who issued this famous quote, be OK if he lost more than $800 million in one day? Maybe he can counsel Oscar Munoz and United Airlines.

“Where have you been, Michael?  This whole United Airlines thing has A Sorry State written all over it!?!?!?”

Good to know people read this blog.  I hear you.  To be sure, it would have been easy for me to write a post about how United Airlines, its communications staff and its leadership botched things.  For an organization whose CEO was recently named Communicator of the Year by PR WEEK this is among the blackest black eyes one company could receive.

What I want to address is how late the apologies came—I say apologies in the plural form because there were many—the apologies that have not come and those that should come--but probably won't.

Being On-Time Counts

I know people within United Airlines’ corporate communications department.  The last thing I want to do is write a blog post about what is wrong with United’s processes and systems.  They are all under the gun, and (no matter what one says to the contrary) they are doing the best they can under incredible circumstances.

Still, when you enter the PR business, it’s like being an ER doctor without the M.D. on the end of your last name.  When shots have been fired and your company’s reputation has been scarred, you need to stop the bleeding at the source within the quickest time frame possible.  In our era of social media and millions of people responding, every second counts.  

The timing of Oscar Munoz’s responses has been perplexing, to say the least.  There was too much time for a statement to hit the airwaves (let alone a wrong one), despite the need for UAL to properly investigate exactly what happened.  But for every second that went by, the court of public opinion shaped a judgment.

And then the statement comes out.  WHOA.  Swing and a miss. Strike one.

The first apology that came out was poorly worded; it was a partial apology with no sympathy or responsibility connected to it.  The first line was about United Airlines, not the people who were affected.  Right then and there, the damage was done, and it was going to take a Herculean response to make things better. 

“I apologize for re-accommodating these customers?”  Uh, what about the guy who was dragged off the plane?  What about the policy?  What changes will be made?  Nothing.

Earlier Tuesday, a United spokesman backed off the company’s initial claims that the flight was “overbooked” rather than disrupted at the last minute to transport off-duty crew.  But then news came out about employees wanting to get home, thereby negating THAT claim.  Strike two.

Apologies for the Wrong Reasons… 

When the last statement—and what they called a full apology—was issued, it was Oscar Munoz and United Airlines falling on the sword.  But again, the apology was about United Airlines and not the people who were affected.  Strike Three.

Stakeholders don’t want to hear excuses; they want to hear results.  That there are actually policies in place for overselling airplanes while accommodating employees of an airline is not just an issue for United Airlines; every airline is affected.  Yet, United Airlines did not address this topic.  Early statements came out with United proclaiming that its staff followed proper procedures and protocols.  United Airlines played a game of CYA at the expense of everyone else around them.

And then there was the statement that Munoz’s “team” was conducting a “detailed review” to “further address and resolve this situation.”  None of these apologies were full; they were full of other things.  When making a full apology, a company needs to do the following:

  • …acknowledge what one did wrong.
  • …take responsibility for one’s actions.
  • …acknowledge the impact one’s actions had on others.
  • …apologize for having caused pain or done damage.
  • …repair the damage or state your future intentions.
  • Above all else, do not make excuses.

…and the Wrong People

The most unsettling thing about this whole case is that there are scores of people who are in need of an apology from Munoz and his team--and they may not get one.

  • First and foremost, Munoz needs to drop what he is doing and connect with the passenger who was bloodied by law enforcement and security officials.  In person.  Step away from United’s ivory tower and show that he is a person of his word.
  • Second, Munoz needs to issue a separate statement to employees who are now scrutinized because of someone else’s actions.  Coming to work will not be a positive experience; something needs to be done to reinforce how changes will be made.
  • An airline’s most loyal customers—those of the frequent flier variety—need an apology of their own that their trust was violated, or else United will see a defection of its most loyal patrons.
  • Last but not least, communications need to be made to the passengers of Flight 3411.

It’s going to take a lot of work for United—and all of its partners to make the skies friendly again.  Let’s hope they’re up to the challenge, or else $800 million lost will be the least of their concerns.

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