COHN Voices: The United Airlines PR Fiasco

April 18, 2017

Recovering From A PR Nightmare

If you’re United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz, you have to be wondering how you got here. A bad policy, a bungling crew, and a handful graphic of iPhone videos has led to one of the worst corporate PR crises in recent memory. Worse yet, Muñoz and the United Airlines PR team stumbled out of the gate with a tone-deaf statement that seemed to blame the victim. Fly the friendly skies? Woof.

So… how in the world does United Airlines recover from this? I happen to work with some of the smartest people on the planet, so I asked them:

Where does United Airlines go from here?

As always, the COHN team stuck the landing with this edition of COHN Voices, and I think you’ll find their responses to be enlightening and thought-provoking.

Jeff Cohn, President & CEO
In the 1990 movie “Crazy People,” the great Dudley Moore played an advertising executive who worked with the mentally challenged to create powerful advertising campaigns that said it like it is. The most famous scene shows Moore pitching Volvo. Back then, Volvos were ugly and square, but by far the safest car on the road. The pitch concept: “Buy Volvos. They’re boxy but good.” The movie continues with other straightforward advertising concepts. And they work.

There may be a great solution for United in this approach. I’m not sure there is anything United can do from a brand standpoint to immediately fix its recent debacle. Perhaps they can take the lead in the industry by trying something fresh and unheard of: honesty. That might go a long way to rebuild their trust with the American and global traveling public. After all, “Fly the Friendly Skies of United,” a jingle from my youth, is a distant memory. Let’s get real. They do a great job of getting us from place to place efficiently and effectively. Their planes are clean. They have video systems. The airline can get you pretty much anyplace in the world. So let’s take a cue from Crazy People and tell that story:

      We’ll take you anyplace you want to go. Just don’t expect us to be nice about it. United.
      Only our business class customers get treated well. But we’ll get you there. United.
      Our most frequent flyers get the best seats. Unless one of our crew needs it. United.
      No matter how much you pay for your ticket, we’ll be just as rude. United.

Think about all the incredible marketing tie-ins, from PR stunts to digital visibility. Nordstrom built a legacy through outstanding customer service. United Airlines has successfully proven it is no Nordstrom and, with management like Muñoz, never will be. So please United, give transparency a try. We might actually start to believe you and fly your airline again. With absolutely no expectations for anything but getting us to our destination.

Anne Wright, Director of Client Services
I think United will start a sale on flights ASAP, as—let’s face it—airline travel isn’t cheap. For some people, the only way to get where they want to go will be on an airline, unpopular or not. (Does anyone really like Frontier anymore?). Cheaper travel options will make some people forget what’s happened. And for others, sometimes it’s just impossible to stay away from a certain airline, hotel chain, or car rental company long term.

Denver frequent fliers likely remember the good old days when United was king. I flew them for everything until Frontier came around. And now? The flavor for Denver travel has changed again. Times change, airlines stop serving cookies on flights, and most consumers have a short attention span and possibly even a shorter memory. United isn’t going anywhere. Their stock price will tank, but it will rebound. And, when enough time has passed, they too will likely be purchased by another carrier.

Kaitlyn Ambrose, Content Producer
UAL is in some boiling hot water. You would think a company that has been around since 1926 would have a bulletproof (or as bulletproof as you could be when it comes to crisis situations) plan on how to address this kind of situation from all angles. A lesson for brands everywhere big and small: Have a plan (a good one at that) and stick to it. If I were UAL, that’s where I would start. Rewrite the playbook to ensure this never happens again. I don’t envy UAL’s social media or PR team at all right now.

Lisa Wieting, VP Planning + Integration
Memories are short, and most people make decisions based on convenience/necessity over principle. However, if I was Southwest, American, Delta, etc., I would have my marketing and operations teams working around the clock to figure out how to leverage this situation in a thoughtful way. From reevaluating and revising corporate policies that may be similar to the situation that landed United here in the first place (overbooking, re-accommodating customers, vouchers, accommodating staff, etc.) to adding small benefits (Anne, I totally remember getting free cookies, it was the best!) to figuring out how promote their commitment to their customers in their next marketing campaign.

Southwest already has a jump here because their campaigns have historically been about how they treat their customers, but the door is open to lay it on even thicker without necessarily pointing fingers at United. This could keep the memory alive longer to potential swing brand loyalists to another “preferred” airline.

As for what United can do, they have a long road ahead. They already showed their cards as far as how they “really felt” about the incident with that first statement. Now, it’s about creating a long-term plan towards their commitment to change. I think that has to start with some major, public changes to the leadership team, as well as a corporate sense of accountability and humility. They have to go full transparency, and I would actually suggest going through some sort of an internal and external branding exercise that rolls out into a multi-faceted campaign. At this point, actions are going to speak louder than words.

Bart Gottula, Senior Digital Strategist
Technology can turn every waking moment into a spectacle. Viral videos are no longer a sacred production of right place, right time. This United Airlines incident serves as a harsh reminder that brands can and will be judged according to all angles of perception. Yet, few seem to be covering the war of attrition United is now facing—a seemingly impossible task of holding what brand equity it has left, despite what happens as details and outcomes unravel. Driven by the impulsiveness of social media today, brands don’t have time for slow, traditional maneuvers anymore. Perception rules the world, whether based in fact or not and the public will be oh-so-willing to take your brand to the woodshed if given the chance.

United needs to ensure the public that it understands its responsibility to communicate, investigate, and offer support where needed. It doesn’t have to mean taking sides or providing details of an event prematurely. It simply means United will do everything in its power to uphold its own brand mission, values.


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