Offer Concrete Solutions: Leadership Lessons from the United Airlines Incident

United Airlines struggled to correctly respond to its recent PR crisis, but the report it released this week shows that it's starting to figure things out. Here are some takeaways you can borrow from the report.

One of the month’s biggest stories, the tale of how United Airlines forced a man off a flight in a violent scene that quickly went viral on social media, included what many observers saw as an example of what not to do during a PR crisis, especially in an initial response.

But the airline’s full assessment of the incident involving passenger David Dao, and the steps it’s taking to deal with the issue, may prove important to salvaging United’s reputation.

“We can never apologize enough for what occurred and for our initial response that followed. United Airlines takes full responsibility for what happened,” the company said in its review of the incident this week. “The intention of this report is to communicate concrete and meaningful actions that will avoid putting our customers, employees, and partners into impossible situations.”

Our customers should be at the center of everything we do, and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust.

Here are a few important lessons to take from the incident for those looking to bounce back from a PR crisis:

Apologize, apologize, apologize. In United CEO Oscar Munoz’s first response to the incident, he showed favoritism to the company’s employees and discounted the plight of the victim. It took him a couple of tries to find the correct tone, but now he’s sticking with it. “This is a turning point for all of us at United, and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more customer-focused airline,” Munoz said in a statement Thursday. “Our customers should be at the center of everything we do, and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust.”

Keep your promises. When Munoz announced that the airline would undertake a full investigation into to the incident, he promised to release a review by April 30 and to fix the mistakes that were made. “I promise you we will do better,” he said. The deadline pledge was a relatively small promise in the grand scheme, but by keeping it the company may have made it easier for customers to believe it will keep its larger promises.

Explain without shifting blame. In the report, the company offered a plain description of what happened during the incident and listed specific failures on its part, without dwelling on the actions of law enforcement or the passenger. By focusing squarely on its own role rather criticizing others, United cleared the path for reconsidering its own cultural issues.

Offer detailed action plans. One of the interesting things about the incident was that it drew attention to the related issues of airline overbooking and customer service. The report lays out numerous examples of how United’s policies have already changed in response to the incident. It also addresses a problem that wasn’t directly involved in Dao’s case: what United does with lost bags. The company revealed it would adopt a no-questions-asked policy and pay customers up to $1,500 when luggage is lost. This wasn’t necessary, but it highlighted United’s willingness to fix other problems with the passenger experience.

Dao and his lawyer, Thomas Demetrio, welcomed the report, with Demetrio calling the policy changes “an excellent start in a short period of time.” Dao agreed to settle his lawsuit against United not long after the report was released.

The challenge going forward is that United has to keep more than David Dao happy.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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