Haris Ahmed – Chicago | The United Airlines Fiasco as a PR Disaster

Haris Ahmed Chicago: United Airlines – What Could Have Been Done?

Pragmatium Consulting Group, Inc., a public relations and management consulting company that conducts management and executive training, is headed by long-time PR practitioner Haris Ahmed. A Chicago resident, Haris has coached and mentored several C-level executives from some of the country’s industry leaders, including Allstate, United Airlines, Unilever, and Johnson & Johnson. He has also served as a lecturer at Notre Dame, where he earned his MBA with a focus on leadership studies. Today, he discusses the things that went wrong with United Airlines’ handling of the recent offboarding controversy, and what could have been done differently.

As a long-time Chicago resident, I’ve always made it a point to patronize businesses that have headquarters in the area. United Airlines is one of them. Long before they occupied multiple floors at the Willis Tower, they were already a pillar of the Chicago economy, employing thousands and lending their name to the Bulls’ home court. I was also invited to conduct a series of executive mentoring sessions among their upper management and have developed very good relations with many of them. Thus, when I heard of the offboarding incident that took place late in April, I couldn’t help but shake my head and wonder what had gone wrong.

The first thing that the air carrier could’ve done was to address the issue in simple yet apologetic terms, acknowledging that it had gone overboard. Unfortunately, CEO Oscar Munoz wasted so many words in issuing a non-apology, which went to the tune of “I’m sorry/not sorry we had to kick the passenger out of the plane.” The response was neither swift nor sincere, and it appeared as if United underestimated the potential of the incident to go viral.

There was also a disconnect between United’s initial response to the public and the statement it made to its employees and stakeholders. The latter statement described the passenger as being “disruptive and belligerent” and defended the employees involved in the incident. To me, it was as if they were still trying to save face instead of admitting that they did the wrong thing, and directly blamed the passenger instead of admitting to lapses in their procedure.

It was only after two days that United released a full apology that described the incident as “truly horrific”. But by then, the damage had been done; memes had already been circulating on social media and late-night show hosts were having a field day. When it came to light that the disembarked passenger was a practicing physician of Asian descent, pundits also started painting the incident in a racially-charged manner.

What could have been done? It was clear that United’s in-house PR team was caught flat-footed, as if they were deer in the headlights. They failed to anticipate that a delayed response would give its detractors plenty of time and ammunition to launch an all-out offensive. In the aftermath of the incident, the head of a PR agency told me, “They should have called a reputation management company right away instead of turning to their CEO.”

I know Mr. Munoz from my time mentoring United executives, and he seemed to be a good enough fellow. However, it’s clear that he did not think about his initial response very thoroughly. Everyone in the PR business knows that the first response sets the tone for the conversation, and when Munoz issued a half-hearted statement, I knew right away that it wasn’t going to be good for the company.

Haris Ahmed of Chicago believes that engaging the services of a professional Management Firm will help businesses come up with campaigns that are sincere, convincing, and reflective of their own values.



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