Crisis Communications (Part 2): United Airlines Teaches Us the 3 Don’ts

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Crisis Communications (Part 1): KFC Teaches Us the 3 Do’s

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Moving on, here are three simple don’ts of Crisis Communications as demonstrated by United Airlines’ infamous Flight 3411:

Contrary to KFC’s PR success, United Airlines Flight 3411 was probably one of the most well publicised PR disasters in recent history. On an overbooked United Airlines flight on 9 April 2017, four passengers were supposed to leave the flight to make way for the company’s employees. One of the four, Mr David Dao, who refused to leave, ended up being forcibly and violently removed from the flight. Videos of this shameful event went viral on social media within 24 hours and United Airlines immediately became the internet’s biggest enemy.


1. Wing It’

This never works. Even more so now with the popularity of social media, where everyone will scrutinise and analyse everything you say (and did not say) and are more than happy to share their opinion to anyone who is willing to listen.

After the fiasco took place, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz apologised for “having to re-accommodate these customers”, which missed the point of the outrage directed at the beleaguered airline. Clearly there were more pressing issues such as the forceful removal of a paying passenger. The first thing he should have done was sincerely apologise and not try to down play the incident. Many viewed his response to be insensitive and overly callous.

2. Deny or push the blame

The only thing that can make you look worse than not apologising, is denying it’s your own fault and pushing blame to someone else. Which is exactly what Munoz did by blaming the passenger.

The very next day, Munoz escalated the situation by sending a letter to United employees, describing Dao as "disruptive and belligerent." He also doubled down by mentioning that "employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this." Now he was probably trying to reassure his staff during turbulent times, which would seem like a good thing to do, but apparently even his staff wasn’t too pleased with his approach, because someone within United Airlines leaked the letter almost as soon as it went out. That’s never a good sign.

And of course, he was immediately called out for it with the Huffington Post’s next headline being a good example: ‘UNITED CEO BLAMES THE VICTIM’. Cool.

3. Underestimate the Power of Social Media

With over 3 billion people using social media platforms, the popularity and importance of social media cannot be neglected. The United Airlines incident clearly highlights the power of social media and what it can do to both corporations and individuals.

Within the first seven minutes of the incident, United Airlines started receiving complaints via Twitter. Over the next 12h, videos of Dao being assaulted and forcefully dragged off the plane were spreading like wildfire on Facebook and Twitter. Within 18h, the incident was reported on national TV. Following which Munoz’s first response on Twitter went live, with over 80,000 people talking about his tweet and creating memes. By 48h, a Tweet including Munoz’s letter to his employees went viral. The video went viral in China as well, with the Chinese calling for boycotts of United Airlines with their seemingly racist (anti-Asian) ways. A petition calling for Munoz’s resignation received over 100,000 signatures. This, is the power of social media in the 21st century.

In just a month, United Airline’s poor response to the incident turned into a never-ending PR nightmare. Not just causing its stock to drop $1 billion in value but also tarnishing the name of United Airlines probably for years to come.

Now that we have thoroughly analysed the 3 Do’s and Don’ts in Crisis Communications and seen the extent of its impact, here’s a special refresher just for you.

You never know when a crisis may occur, and when it hits, you have to fix it ASAP. An organisation must be able to respond promptly, accurately and appropriately during a crisis and in the hours that follow. All stakeholders must have access to information specific to their interests and needs. A crisis communications plan guides organisations to contain the crisis, and recover from its impact from any unfavourable publicity generated.

Well it just so happens that Crisis Communications is one of Right Hook’s specialties, so give us a call and let’s talk about how we can help you put your Crisis Communications plan to order. 😊

For more information on some of our client case studies when it comes to crisis management do feel free to drop us an email at


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