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Can the latest apology from United Airlines heal the rift?

United AirlinesOn April 12, I blogged about the immediate aftermath of United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz’ (lack of) leadership.  This following the upsetting video that surfaced the night of April 9th, showing the violent removal of a passenger from an aircraft.  On April 19, I wrote a further commentary in my regular column for The Globe & MailLessons from the United Airlines debacle (or how not to destroy your brand) – in which laid out five leadership lessons that any CEO should internalize so as not to find themselves in similar shaky situations in the future.

Is it too little, too late?

I still maintain that this unfortunate United Airlines incident is destined to become a textbook case of how a leader should not act in a state of crisis (particularly in the age of the Internet).  But I am pleased to say that on April 27, Munoz also demonstrated how to do it right.  United issued the results of their internal investigation as well as a public apology in major newspapers, individual apologies to the airline’s frequent flyers (I got an email) and a statement on their website.  Granted, it may be the proverbial equivalent of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, but in my opinion, late is better than never.  Titled “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”, Munoz not only expressed remorse (without any excuses) but also made commitments to specific actions, all designed to avoid any such horrific situation from occurring in the future.   The company also issued an 11-page investigative report summarizing the situational failures and the resulting policy changes that are being put into effect at United.

Here’s what is good about it

Now I was pretty candid and forthright in laying out what United Airlines and its CEO did wrong, so in the spirit of fair-mindedness, here’s what they’ve now done right.

  • Munoz has expressed genuine regret. Sure, the cynics will question his sincerity suggesting that his apologies only come as a measure of damage control.  While there is likely a modicum of truth there, the point remains that this most recent apology completely differs in tone from his first public statement.  Back then, he used words like “re-accommodate”, “inconvenienced” and “upsetting”.  His choice of words  came across as tone-deaf in a situation that would have more aptly been described as terrible and horrible and shocking and distressing.
  • Munoz initiated a full investigation to obtain an unbiased and factual narrative and then issued a complete report that demonstrated transparency. As a result, he has taken a first step towards recovering his integrity.
  • Given that social media is what fanned the firestorm, the company has realized that it needs to return to social media to repair the damage. “Actions Speak Louder Than Words” and the underlying report were not only posted on United’s Internet site, but also sent out via email to every frequent flier in the company’s Mileage Plus program.
  • In the report, the company has explicitly stated that it is not only implementing policies to become more customer-focused, but also putting enough flexibility into those policies so that customers, employees and partners do not find themselves in impossible situations that will undermine that customer focus.
  • United is now very specific about the changes they intend to make. For example, they are empowering employees to resolve customer service issues in the moment, as well as establishing a customer solutions team to provide agents with creative solutions to problems.

Did United get it wrong?  Absolutely, there is no doubt.  But to give credit where credit is due, I believe that they’ve taken some concrete positive steps in the last few weeks to try and make it right.

Do you agree?  Is it too little too late?  Or are you willing to give United the benefit of forgiveness following the expressed regret?  I’d love to hear what you think.  Please share your perspectives below.

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