Recently, United Airlines was caught in another scandal involving yet another highly unfortunate dog-related mishap. Every major news outlet covered the incident in their print newspapers, online news websites, and Twitter feeds. It even populated Snapchat news stories.
United Airlines is no stranger to negative national media attention. Everyone remembers the incident in spring of 2017 where a man was forcibly dragged off a plane that spurred what seemed to be a series of unfortunate events that continued to tarnish United’s reputation (e.g., animal cruelty, passenger mishaps, you name it.)
If it wasn’t bad enough that these events happened in the first place, United has become notorious for not issuing empathetic responses and turning a crisis into a PR disaster.
Yet despite all of this, United Airlines is still a very profitable company. Confused about why this could be, we turned to Laura Guitar, Executive Vice President of rbb Communications and head of rbb’s crisis division Reputation & Risk Advisors, for some answers.
Read below to get her take on the company’s crisis management strategies and what can still be done to repair their image.
United’s crises are constantly blown up by the media and scrutinized by the public, yet they still can’t seem to get it right. What are the biggest effects this will have for the company?
Laura: Most companies can recover from a single negative incident, even one captured on video and garnering widespread pickup. Recovery is a matter of demonstrated reparations that are visible to the market, consistent effort and time.
However, during the recovery period, companies are under a higher level of scrutiny from the press, investors and consumers, and vulnerable to elevated attention.
United’s problem isn’t stories that continue to blow up in the media. The problem is that it has stories that can be blown up in the media. In essence, the root of the problem associated with its culture hasn’t been solved.
Despite all these bad PR moves, people are still flying United. Why do you think this is, and does this say anything about the industry they’re in?
Laura: Recent airline mergers have left U.S. travelers with just four major airlines to choose from. Most customers don’t have much choice in the airline they fly. As the Washington Post notes, United holds more than 50 percent of passenger traffic in Houston and Newark and serves 1 in 3 fliers from Washington Dulles International Airport.
That said, when a choice exists, passengers may opt for an alternative carrier, requiring United to do more to attract customers. While its planes may be full, it may cost United more to sell the seats. In an industry where margins matter, this could have a significant financial impact if it continues over a protracted period of time.
What are the main differences between a single incident and a series of crises like United’s? Is it possible to have an isolated crisis be worse than a series?
Laura: A catastrophic incident involving the unexpected destruction of facilities, multiple fatalities or widespread wrongdoing can obviously have a greater impact than smaller incidents. A catastrophic incident will interrupt, slow down or stop business operations altogether.
However, a series of smaller incidents may have the impact of death by a thousand cuts – a slow but painful process that has operational ramifications for hiring and recruitment, employee morale, and customer acquisition and retention.
How would this type of situation have been handled 10 years ago?
Laura: In many ways, the situation wouldn’t have existed 10 years ago. The level of frustration that exists today among airline travelers wasn’t in play. The media approach was entirely different without today’s pursuit of click-bait stories and social media wasn’t as video oriented as it is now.
Are there any additional steps United can take, or are they too far gone?
Laura: They are certainly not too far gone as evidenced by their dominance of many flight routes. The challenge is for United to recognize the need to address these issues as more than one-off occurrences or the failures of a handful of employees. They need to address a systemic corporate culture that allows the incidents to happen in the first place.