The past week has been a difficult one for United Airlines. By now, nearly the entire world has seen the smartphone video of Dr. David Dao being forced out of his seat after his flight was overbooked and he refused to leave the plane. He was then dragged by the City of Chicago’s Department of Aviation security team through the aisle, suffering a concussion, two lost teeth, a broken nose and the loss of his human dignity.

It was a chilling sight, yet a scenario like this has been brewing for quite some time, as airline customer service performance continues to decline and polls show that most of the traveling public prefers cheaper flights over better service. Within this environment, airlines have made a practice of overbooking flights to ensure they are full, which ultimately enables them to offer cheaper airfares to passengers.

However, as we saw this past week, the downside is the rare occasion when the model doesn’t work and paying passengers decline to accept financial or travel incentives to give up their seats. The public relations disaster that can ensue was on full display by United Airlines, when policy prevailed and a paying passenger was forced off of the plane (through no fault of his own, and in this case to make room for traveling United Airlines employees).

It’s ironic that the company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, was recently named “Communicator of the Year” by PR Week magazine, yet when his ultimate PR test arrived, he failed in epic fashion. As of today, he’s apologized four times for the incident – each one a little stronger than the one before – but for the general public it was “too little, too late.” It’s also ironic that, as bad as this PR disaster has been for United Airlines, the City of Chicago’s Department of Aviation (whose security guards were responsible for actually removing Dr. Dao) has been virtually unscathed by the incident, even though physical brutality has been a public issue for the city’s police department.

Often, the biggest PR problems that companies face occur when they believe they are in the right or have been justified in their response. Without realizing it, organizational groupthink begins to permeate the mindset of those providing counsel and those closest to the issue. It would have been very interesting to have been a fly on the wall when the corporate communications crisis team was formulating a response in the boardroom. You almost wonder if any of them had actually seen the video of Dr. Dao’s limp body being dragged across the floor of the plane. Which brings me to the point of this column and what I believe all companies can learn from United Airlines’ missteps from the past week.

First, being legally right isn’t enough. You still need to be right in the public’s judgment, especially if the rules are designed to benefit you over the consumer or customer. Even though the employees followed their prescribed procedures (and it was the security team that caused physical harm to Dr. Dao), United Airlines is paying an incredible price through its declining stock price and public image.

Second, once the incident has occurred and has been brought to the attention of senior management, every attempt should be made by the company to assess what role it had in the issue and where its responsibility lies. Oscar Munoz was so busy trying to explain what his employees had done right (by the book) that he seemed oblivious to what was obvious to just about everyone else in the general public – his employees’ lack of judgment.  Moreover, his escalating apologies (as he began to realize that public sentiment was turning against him) only made him seem more oblivious to what had actually happened on the plane.

And, finally, it is important to remember that we live in a world where our every public action could be recorded on a smartphone or video camera. Sometimes the video snippet doesn’t tell the whole story, but it might tell the only part that the public will ever know. Create a customer service training program for employees that reminds them of this fact and encourages them to respond to issues with the utmost care – keeping in mind that their every decision could be scrutinized by the world via social media within a few short hours or minutes.

Jason Meyer
Executive Vice President & Partner