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Essential leadership lessons from the United Airlines public relations debacle

unitedlogoSo you’d have to be under a rock or in a dark cave some place to have missed the firestorm that is United Airlines which ignited sometime this past Sunday night.  After all, it’s not every day that an airline literally beats up its customer!  If you haven’t seen the video that accelerated into cyberspace (where have you been?), just Google it; you should find it within seconds.  There’s a lot of conversation about the circumstances leading up to this event, but one thing is clear.  United Airlines’ CEO, Oscar Munoz didn’t handle things well, and in today’s post, I’d like to focus on his apparent (lack of) leadership.  In this age of the Internet, there is example after example of the public relations nightmare that can fall out of a poorly-managed situation (heck, I remember the Papa John’s incident five years ago!), and unfortunately, United Airlines’ handling of this situation is destined to become a textbook case of how a leader should not act.  Let me give you a quick rundown, at least as of last night.

United Airline’s Mistake #1

When the videos of this regrettable event first hit the worldwide web late on Sunday night, Munoz issued a public statement on Monday, which went wrong from the very beginning.  His choice of words — “re-accommodate”, “inconvenienced” and “upsetting” — came across as tone-deaf in a situation that would have more aptly been described as terrible and horrible and shocking and distressing.

Source: View from the Wing
Blunder #2

As the videos went viral, the public outcry became more intense and the flames began to blaze out of control.  That was when Munoz made his next critical misstep.  Later that day, he issued an internal memo to staff which essentially blamed the victim, accusing the man of being disruptive and belligerent.  This despite the fact that there were numerous eyewitness accounts that said otherwise.  Now if he thought that an internal memo was going to stay private, he should have given his head a shake, several times.  Needless to say, it was only a matter of hours before the “internal memo” went public; and if you thought the public was disgusted before, the revulsion-meter shot up exponentially.

Source: @jonostrower

Now granted, Munoz likely based this employee-missive on information provided to him by staff who were closest to the situation.  But did he really expect that the employees involved in this incident would give him a balanced perspective on what actually happened?    I suspect his intentions behind this memo were worthy; he was attempting to let his people know that he “had their back”.  After all, how many times have we seen employees who “followed procedure” left high-and-dry by management when “you know what” hit the fan?  But in this case, Munoz’s good intentions were definitely misguided; you don’t rush in to defend employees until you have a good understand of all the relevant facts.  The firestorm worsened.  Not only did public opinion deteriorate further, but the company began to see negative financial repercussions as its stock value plummeted and ticket cancellations started coming in.

Attempt at recovery #3

Late yesterday afternoon, Munoz issued another statement, this one clearly attempting to mitigate the damage resulting from the ‘internal memo”.

ua3But is it too little, too late?  I don’t know.  In today’s fickle world of shifting priorities, it is entirely possible that the next news story may quickly push this situation out of sight, and thus out of mind, for most people.  The moral outrage expressed today may quickly wane in the next few days and weeks.  But it’s also possible that this particular issue may have become so large that it won’t simply sink in the veritable tide of the next world or national crisis.  Whatever the outcome, there are a few lessons here for any leader:

  • Do not, I repeat, do not underestimate the power of social media. I have said for years that social media is a fundamental shift in the way people communicate with one another, and therefore it has enormous implications for how leaders should recruit, motivate and lead people.  And in the long-term, social media is changing how clients and customers select and buy services and products, so do not undervalue its implications.
  • Respond to incendiary situations (such as this one) rapidly and with compassion.  You can always be more factual (and even talk tough) in later communications, but if you start there, it’s much, much harder to backpedal later.
  • If you were not present to observe the situation yourself, do not make assumptions about the conduct of your customers or your employees.  You need to gather more balanced information before you come to any conclusions.  Focus on being transparent, but without judgment, at least until you have had a reasonable amount of time to fully assess all aspects of the situation.
  • There is no such thing as private communication.  As a leader, you should assume that any and all “internal” documents can and will be made public, so therefore craft them accordingly.
  • Deliberately and thoughtfully create an organizational culture where employees are empowered to made decisions and take action.  You hired them because you thought they had good judgement, now let them use it!  Yes, policies and procedures are there for a reason.  But for goodness sake, given your employees the latitude to be flexible within guidelines.  Why did the gate agent feel like s/he had to follow “policies” to the letter?  Why could s/he not exercise good judgement in “sweetening the offer” so that someone willingly volunteered to take a later flight?  If $800 was not enough to incent a volunteer, then up the ante.  Surely that would have been a better outcome than what eventually resulted.  The answer: because employees were not empowered to make decisions and act outside of “policy”.

Well, these are the primary lessons I have, at least for now.  There is no doubt that this will continue to play out, and we’ll see what Munoz does in the days and weeks upcoming to try and control the damage that is already done.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts.  What are the other lessons here for leaders?  What specifically should a leader do, or not do, when faced with circumstances that can quickly spiral into a public relations nightmare?  Please add your comments below.

P.S. Ironically, it was only last month that Oscar Munoz was awarded the Communicator Of The Year Award by PRWeek, a top communications publication, for his work over the past year to “better engage with employees and customers.”  Not so much, apparently.


  • Hi Merge,

    My thoughts on the United PR debacle.

    (1) I don’t believe the first two responses from Munoz were actually created or directed by the man himself. Rather, the responses were crafted by a Public Relation VP or Director. I have listened to Munoz speak at investor conferences and to the general media, I dont believe he would use the words “passenger reaccomodation”. The third statement is consistent with the cadence and choice of words that I have come to expect from Munoz. The lesson learned is that comments attributed to the executive should be sourced from the same person. The PR person is there to punch up or condense the comments, but not write the entire statement. If the executive cannot create the base statement, then issue the statement as coming from the corporation without attribution to a specific person.

    (2) While I agree with you on an immediate compassionate response is required, a rapid and detailed response should be avoided at all costs. The first CEO level response should be the old standard “horrified by the incident….apologies to all customers on the flight…… full investigation has began…. No further comment until the investigation is complete.” Temptation to litigate the incident in social media should be avoided at all costs. Furthermore, the social media team needs to be explicitly told not to respond to individual requests for comment or debate on Facebook or Twitter.

    (3) I have to disagree on the employee empowerment angle. Customer expectations are just too high at the present time for there to be any reasonable resolution that an employee can provide. It is not just airline transportation where excessive customer expectations are preventing a reasonable resolution. My wife works customer service at a local Calgary grocery store. Customer approach the counter with a price error. Company policy is to offer the price error item for free up to $10. Customer Service clerks can go beyond the $10 limit by maybe an additional $10 dollars. However the customer is demanding all items compensated for free, or $200 worth of ribeye steak.

    (4) Mandatory dutch auction with $1,000 reserve/max bid would be the only method to solicit passengers to leave the auction. If all passengers write down $1,000 on the auction paper, the auctioneer would select four bids at random. However I suspect the at least 4 people out of 75 would be willing to accept an amount less than $1,000 because something is better than nothing. That said, no regulator in the world would accept the dutch auction as a means to resolve the situation.

    (5) The situation arose because the passenger thought they could enter into a Mexican Standoff with the airline and come out the victor with another passenger being taken off the flight. However just like the movies, nobody ever wins the Mexican Standoff and everyone is dead in the final scene.

    As a society, we need to get back to the time of respectful behaviour towards everyone. 20+ years ago the protestors (“tree huggers”) in Clayoquot Sound were carried out in handcuffs by police, but they didn’t fight back. The passenger had all the legal rights in the world up until the point where he fought with the police. But now, if this gets to trial, the passenger will have to answer to the question why he resisted arrest.

    • Kris, thanks so much for your thoughtful response.

      I agree for the most part with your first two points — likely the first two missives were crafted by someone else in the organization, but at the end of the day, the CEO needs to take responsibility for it; and while I still say a rapid response was necessary, I agree that excessive detail in the early stages is inappropriate and quite frankly impossible since all the details are not yet know.

      I also agree with your third point in that once a situation has escalated, there may be no reasonable resolution. However, my comment was directed more at leaders in other organizations who should all be thinking about how not to end up in the situation that United is now in. Leaders have a responsibility to create an organizational culture that empowers employees within established parameters … and this is possible, very possible … there is example after example of companies that have successfully accomplished this. Apparently in this United Airlines situation, there were parameters in place that went beyond the $800 incentive, but the employee, for whatever reason, did not feel empowered to follow through.

      On your point #4 I defer to you. I know that you know far more about the aviation industry than I ever could 🙂 .

      Your point #5 is where you and I disagree. I don’t think you can assume the passenger’s motivation (I cannot either). It is becoming increasingly clear though that he DID NOT resist arrest, he simply declined to “volunteer” to give up his seat. There was a video released earlier today that was taken before the violent incident occurred ( and he certainly didn’t demonstrate any belligerent or disruptive behaviour. At the end of the day though, any video evidence notwithstanding, nothing in this situation warranted the ultimate outcome. I am not a legal expert, but my evaluation of the facts as I see them says that this gentleman did not engage in any illegal behaviour, but the response to the situation on the other hand, was completely far beyond what could be considered reasonable! Time will tell I suppose.


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