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Marketing: United Airlines Fails (Again) at PR Crisis Management

Marketing: United Airlines Fails (Again) at PR Crisis Management

On Monday, March 12, Catalina Robledo boarded a United Airlines Houston to New York flight with her 11-year-old daughter Sophia Ceballos and French Bulldog puppy, Kokito. Before takeoff, a flight attendant demanded Sophia put the TSA-approved kennel bag in the overhead bin, despite objections from the family and passengers. Robledo, who had her infant in her lap and speaks limited English, had another bag under the seat, and had put the carrier in the aisle.

The dog barked for about two hours, then stopped. After landing, the family discovered the lifeless dog. Robledo tried resuscitating Kokito. Passenger Maggie Gremminger blogged, “A fellow passengers offered to hold the newborn while the mother was crying on the floor aisle with the dog.”

After realizing what happened, the flight attendant approached the family in tears, saying she didn’t know there was a dog in the bag. Although earlier, Gremminger had heard the flight attendant say, “You need to put your dog up here,” which violates United’s policy that animals be placed under the seat.

Tuesday, March 13, United issued this statement: “This was a tragic accident that should have never occurred, as pets should never be placed in the overhead bin. We assume full responsibility for this tragedy and express our deepest condolences to the family and are committed to supporting them. We are thoroughly investigating what occurred to prevent this from ever happening again.”

Not a bad start—it’s appropriate and reasonable.

However, things got interesting after multiple reports indicated the flight attendant knew about the dog—especially this March 14 ABC-TV interview with Ceballos who said, “We were going to put him under the seat and then the flight attendants came; she said, ‘You have to put him up there because it’s going to block the paths.’ And we’re like, ‘It’s a dog, it’s a dog.’ And she’s like, ‘It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. You still have to put it up there.”

Twitter and Facebook exploded in response to this post by passenger June Lara: “They INSISTED that the puppy be locked up for three hours without any kind of airflow. They assured the safety of the family’s pet so wearily, the mother agreed.”

On Wednesday, after investigating, United released this statement: “The customer did tell the flight attendant there was a dog in the carrier. However, our flight attendant did not hear or understand her and did not knowingly place the dog in the overhead bin.”

So, what happened?

Did the flight attendant initially lie, afraid of losing her job, or did she really not see or hear the dog, even though she helped put it in the overhead bin?

Was she not listening or paying attention, or just didn’t care?

Did the flight attendant admit knowing about the dog to United officials, but they tried to cover it up?

If the flight attendant knew about the dog, she could have checked on it, despite the reported turbulence. That’s just basic concern and respect for passengers and animals.

What did United do wrong, PR-wise?

Depending on what you believe, United may or may not have behaved badly. If they knew the flight attendant blew it and covered her mistake, that’s bad PR. Ethical PR practitioners don’t lie because they know the truth always comes out. And they know quickly sharing bad news minimizes the damage by allowing the company to address it and move forward.

United Airlines appeared to follow “textbook” PR strategy, they just didn’t do it well.

  • Assess the situation. Did United thoroughly assess the situation before responding, or simply take the flight attendant’s word?
  • Look at it from the customer’s perspective. Was United empathetic enough? A personal, heartfelt apology to the family would have played better with the media than an online statement.
  • Respond immediately and transparently. Only after public witness accounts did United acknowledge the family’s claims that the flight attendant was told about the dog.
  • Craft a message to mitigate the situation. United’s initial statement did little to appease consumers, especially as more facts came to light.
  • Designate a spokesperson. What spokesperson? Statements were released digitally.
  • Back your words with real action. In April, United will begin using brightly colored tags to identify passengers with pets. It feels like United is still siding with the flight attendant.
  • Do the right thing. United refunded the passenger tickets and pet fees of $125, are paying for Kokito’s necropsy, and offered to replace the dog (ouch, too soon). Did they consider giving the family a financial settlement or free airline tickets to compensate them for their loss?

By doing the bare minimum, and doing it poorly, United missed capitalizing on an opportunity to begin repairing their tarnished image.

Why are we so angry?

We’re angry because a little girl lost her puppy…and it was easily preventable. We’re angry about United’s dismal animal safety record. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 75% of animals that died last year at the hands of airlines flew United.

Adding insult to injury, on March 13 United sent Irgo, a 10-year-old German Shepherd, on a 16-hour flight from Denver to Japan with no food, water, or medication—instead of his one-hour flight to Kansas.

Then, on Thursday, March 15, in its third animal-related incident in a week, United Airlines diverted Flight 3996—carrying 33 passengers from Newark, NJ to St. Louis—to Akron, OH when it realized a pet had been loaded onto the wrong flight. The animal was “safely delivered to its owner” and all passengers on the flight were compensated for the delay.

Finally, we haven’t forgotten that video of Dr. Dao being dragged off a May 2017 United flight by police at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, giving him a severe concussion, broken nose, and two missing teeth; or the teenagers kicked off a United flight for wearing leggings.

The good news? On March 6, United Airlines (had) implemented a four-hour “core4” compassion training program to teach flight attendants and gate staff how to be more caring, safe, dependable and efficient. Maybe four hours’ training isn’t enough.

What do you think? Is your company prepared to handle an unexpected crisis? If not, read my article on page 62 of March’s tED magazine.

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Katrina Olson  is a marketing and public relations consultant, trainer/coach, and host of a monthly podcast called Market Boldly, available on iTunes and Google Play. She has written for tED magazine's print edition since 2005, judged tED magazine's Best of the Best Competition since 2006, and also writes for the new lightEDmag.com and lightED Weekly. She can be reached at Katrina@katrinaolson.com or via her website at katrinaolson.com.

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