United is facing a major PR disaster as video of a passenger being forcibly removed from a flight continues to circle the Internet. The video shows a man—now identified as practicing physician Dr. David Dao—being dragged out of his seat and down the narrow aircraft aisle by Chicago Aviation Security Officers for not giving up his seat when asked. The image is shocking: Dao is limp, shirt riding up and glasses sliding down, blood covering his mouth. The full story behind the incident was quickly revealed. As the Huffington Post reported, “Dr. Dao by was on flight 3411 from Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY, and the airline had no more vacant seats. However, after passengers boarded the plane United needed four seats to accommodate its employees that needed to commute to work to service another flight scheduled to depart from Louisville, KY.” They asked people to give up their seat, offering $400, then $800, and finally $1000. When no willing volunteers came forward, they used a computer to pick randomly. Three other people were chosen and had to leave the plane, their seats taken by employees. They were given travel vouchers and were rebooked on another flight. Dr. Dao, however, refused to leave when he was chosen. He was traveling with his wife and didn’t want to leave her alone, and also stated he had patients he had to see the next morning. Rather than offer the maximum amount they could of $1300 or move on, security was called and the result was the circulating video.
Since the incident, United, specifically the company’s chief executive Oscar Munoz, has been criticized for mishandling the situation, promoting the New York Times to create an outline of the apologies from United. The event became public Sunday. On Monday morning, United made a statement, saying, “We apologize for the overbook situation,” but made no reference to Dr. Dao or the video. Later on Monday, Munoz released a statement: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” The term “re-accommodate” had many incensed, leading to countless memes and online jokes. And then to further fan the flames, a letter Munoz had sent internally in the company was made public. In it, he said he stood behind the employees and that they handled the situation correctly. He also gave a rundown of the situation and said, “He [Dao] was approached a few more times after that in order to gain his compliance to come off the aircraft, and each time he refused and became more and more disruptive and belligerent.”
This led to more outrage, as the video did not seem to show a belligerent Dao, and it also contradicted his tone in his public statement. As calls for investigation grew, Munoz released another statement on Tuesday: “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.” He said it’s never too late to do the right thing and that United takes full responsibility, also stating that company policies would be reviewed. Wednesday morning Munoz appeared on “Good Morning, America” giving another apology, and later Wednesday United said it would offer a full refund to every passenger on the flight. On Thursday, Munoz spoke again, stating, “We continue to express our sincerest apology to Dr. Dao…We’ll communicate the results of our review and the actions we will take by April 30.”
Despite being awarded Communicator of the Year by PR Week last month, the publication has said that if they were choosing the award now, Munoz would not be the recipient. And for obvious reasons. These responses were dismissive, then contradictory, then appeared disingenuous. He didn’t actually acknowledge Dao until he was caught saying one thing in public and then another in private. Outcry also went global, as many Chinese customers accused United for racism. “People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, scolded United for initially failing to condemn the man’s treatment,” stated the New York Times. The Thursday response came right after Dao’s daughter made a statement saying United hadn’t reached out to apologize. It has also been announced that Dao is going to sue due to serious injuries, Dao’s lawyer Tom Demetrio said during a press conference Thursday. Business Insider reported, “Demetrio said Dao, 69, lost two front teeth, broke his nose, and suffered a concussion as a result of being dragged off a plane by police officers. He [Demetrio] said Dao would need reconstructive surgery for his injuries.”
Many have already analyzed the issue. “Public relations experts say the CEO should have quickly offered an unreserved apology,” says CNN. It interviewed Ed Zitron, a PR expert and the author of “This Is How You Pitch,” who thought United was not offering a full apology because of fears over a potential lawsuit. However that’s not an effective strategy. “Had United shown compassion and intent to make things right, they could have come out of this at the very least looking like an airline that cares,” Zitron said. “Instead they’ve just made it even worse.” Forbes also said this is a lesson for companies; with social media, everyone is watching and nothing is hidden. Incidents like this can’t just be swept under the rug, and a genuine response is crucial, as Munoz has now learned.