How United turned a molehill into a mountain

Last Updated Apr 12, 2017 9:04 PM EDT

United Airlines (UAL)’s mishandling of bumping a passenger -- the kind of routine problem carriers deal with every day -- is useful in one respect: It offers other companies a textbook example for how not to handle a sensitive PR issue, especially in the age of social media and instantaneous mobile communications.

Indeed, the airline is coping with a veritable public relations nightmare following an incident on Sunday, when a man identified as Kentucky physician David Dao was violently pulled out of his seat by aviation officers called by the airline. In a viral video taped by another passenger, Dao was seen being dragged down the aisle on his back, bleeding from his mouth and his glasses askew. 

The shocking video is prompting widespread condemnation, but the airline worsened the situation with what public relations expert Ed Zitron calls a “really weird robotic corporate response.” 

On Monday, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz apologized -- not for the carrier’s role in injuring Dao or for his rough treatment. Instead, he expressed contrition for having to “re-accommodate” passengers on the flight. 

“All of it was handled horribly,” said Zitron, who runs public relations firm EZPR. “First of all, they should have said, ‘We hope the guy is okay.’ They had this man who was beaten and broken who was spiritually and physically saying, ‘I want to go home.’ They lacked any concern or expression of humanity.”

Ironically, Munoz was recently named America’s “communicator of the year” by PR Week magazine. The publication’s editor in chief told Advertising Age that it was “not psychic” and that it won’t go back on the award.

With public outrage over the incident only intensifying -- and as United shares tumbled -- Munoz on Tuesday issued an apology for Dao’s treatment and said the company was taking full responsibility. He also vowed to stop using police officers in the case of bumped passengers, and said the company would review its policies. 

Airlines are among the companies most vulnerable a social-media firestorm, partly because travelers’ tempers can flare when they are delayed or encounter a problem, while business travelers often have large online followings and aren’t shy about tweeting complaints, said Joshua March, CEO and Founder of Conversocial, a social customer service company. 

United “needs to be going above and beyond to remedy the situation,” March said. “They need to show they are being more empathetic and human, and at every touch point.”

Dao’s treatment and United’s response may be triggering a lingering sense of unease among economy-class travelers, who increasingly are charged fees by airlines for everything from cabin blankets to checked baggage. Long security lines add to the stress of airline travel, especially for economy-class passengers who aren’t able to use the expedited screening enjoyed by first-class or business class customers. 

“Flying is not just nice anymore,” Zitron said. “It’s this weird de-humanizing experience.”

Below are three ways experts say United Airlines mishandled the situation. 

Failing to apologize promptly. The company’s apology came two days too late, according to PR experts. Even if United needed to be circumspect because of legal issues, the company could have expressed concern for Dao and the other passengers. 

Relying on corporate-speak. Using phrases such as the need to “re-accommodate” the passengers on United flight 3411 without seemingly responding to the public shock over the incident was upsetting to many people, who took to social media to point out that Dao was forcibly pulled off the plane. “Especially on Twitter, where people expect a more human response and people are feeling emotional, to have such a corporate response makes it even worse,” March said. 

Describing the situation as an “overbooking.” Consumers also took issue with United’s portrayal of the events that led to Dao’s forced removal, which the airline blamed on overbooking. Instead, the airline bumped him and three other passengers from the plane to give the seats to company employees.