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Dissecting the United CEO’s Response: What Makes a Good Apology?

There will no doubt be countless crisis communications blogs about the handling (mishandling) of the United Airlines Flight 3411 overbooking situation and subsequent forced removal of a passenger. Without question, the airline has suffered reputational damage equivalent to many millions of dollars, and it likely will find itself on the uncomfortable end of a legal settlement when all is said and done.

What is worthy of further review is simply a closer look at the written response from United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, and a discussion of what constitutes a good apology in a crisis. It first must be noted that the response was issued a full day after the incident occurred, and after the media and social media firestorm was burning uncontrollably. They broke the first rule of crisis response – respond quickly and keep people looking at you to define the crisis.

That said, regardless of timeliness, the apology left much to be desired. Let’s dissect his response by the sentence:

  1. “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” No kidding? Don’t start an apology by feeling sorry for yourself. The event likely was far more upsetting to the passenger involved and the other passengers onboard. This is akin to the much-criticized Lululemon CEO response when he apologized to his team – instead of to customers – about the company’s see-through yoga pants debacle. A similar lesson comes from the former CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, who wanted his “life back” after his company polluted the Gulf of Mexico in a massive oil spill. Don’t make a crisis, which damages others, about you.
  2. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” So many things to say: First, there was nothing about the video that seemed to suggest any kind of “accommodation” was made. In fact, it looked pretty darn unaccommodating. Second, I think overbooking is the secondary crisis here. While it may not be pleasant, anyone who is a regular air traveler knows that overbooking happens. Overbooking happens frequently, and almost never rises to this level of scrutiny. The measure of airlines that overbook is how they handle it. This manner clearly did not measure up.
  3. “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.” OK, I don’t have a whole lot to say here, except moving with urgency doesn’t seem to fit with waiting 24 hours. Further, when there is so much damning footage and so many passenger recounts of what occurred, the stock PR answer of “detailed review” falls quite flat.
  4. “We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” This really qualifies as another “stock” answer in a situation that is anything but standard-issue crisis response. Most pundits observing have simply concluded is that what this sentence means simply is, “How much are we going to have to pay to settle this colossal mess?” Unfortunately for United, the damages they will be paying go far beyond the involved passenger or other passengers on the flight.

Bottom line, there was nothing in this response that suggests the company feels badly for what happened to this passenger. They clearly regret there was video of the incident and that they got so miserably “caught” for what occurred. When there is video, whether it tells the full story is less important than understanding and acknowledging the effect these images have on the viewer. And these images, by anyone’s standards, were disturbing at the least and violent at best.

As an apology goes, this one fails. United will not course-correct overnight, and indeed, what occurred here may change the future face of air travel. It will take thoughtful engagement, authentic reparations and genuine contrition to restore the nation’s trust and respect in United Airlines.