United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, waited three days after the incident to issue a botched apology that defended the airline’s action and essentially placed the blame on Dr. Dao by describing him as “disruptive and belligerent.” The apology backfired and unleashed another viral but even more vicious response.
United Airlines’ stock dropped about 4% the morning immediately following the incident, initially wiping out nearly $1 billion in valuation. Munoz then issued a couple of additional apologies finally calling the event “truly horrific” and said that his airlines won’t allow law enforcement officials to remove passengers ever again.
What started out as a typical case of overbooking, rapidly became a PR nightmare. How will this affect United’s brand and potential brand loyalty? Especially considering that they’ve had ongoing internal and external brand reputation struggles for years. This recent incident continues to reinforce their situation, as evident in a Bloomberg Businessweek article in January 2016, “United’s Quest to be Less Awful.” https://www.bloomberg.com/features/2016-united-airlines-struggles/
Brand loyalty is already in decline among consumers anyway. Even among more well regarded brands. But what happens in our 24/7 digital world where news travels at the speed of light and customers are increasingly demanding and expecting greater transparency and authenticity? United just found out.
Companies that think that customers aren’t watching how words and actions come together are living in another era. The warp-speed of communication is placing ever-increasing pressure on organizations to do as they say. And it has to begin at the top and be embraced throughout every level of an organization.
This means that every individual in an organization, regardless of the number of employees, must understand the answer to three very fundamental questions:
1. Who am I as a COMMUNICATOR?
2. How do I represent myself (personal brand) as it relates to my company brand?
3. How do I directly relate with and impact my customers?”
Most people think they “communicate” just fine, but that’s probably because they and the companies they work with don’t delve deep enough below the surface to realize they probably don’t. Getting past that surface level of communication requires understanding what really matters. WHO you are as a communicator directly impacts what and how you communicate. What you look like, sound like, say and how well you listen MATTERS. Gaining understanding about how you process information MATTERS. Getting to know your strengths and deficits as a communicator MATTERS.
Being a more authentic, credible, and responsible communicator isn’t a nice-to-have; it is a given. Effective communication is the driving force for success in forming connections, developing more enriched interpersonal and client interactions and relationships, and being a key influencer in your industry.
The United Airlines crew, law enforcement officials and their CEO showed the world that they were more interested in enforcing their rules than how they were communicating with and treating a passenger. Consequently, what they ended up communicating was a brand far more interested in itself than in its customers…and it took them several days to realize that wasn’t working. By then, the damage had been done.
Had everyone associated with United taken a different approach, focusing on transparent communications, customer service and respect, the outcome might have been different. But they didn’t, so they have two choices – create and then communicate policy changes to prevent a similar situation or make half-hearted attempts and hope the whole thing blows over. People may have short-term memories, but actions do not. Without a conscious change in behavior, United runs the risk of repeating the situation. It’s not a question of if, but when. And the next time the outcome could be even worse.