How to Ruin a Brand in 30 Seconds

Here's what United CEO Oscar Munoz should have said to mitigate United's PR disaster.

April 12, 2017 Resources

How to Ruin a Brand in 30 Seconds

Building a strong brand can be incredibly difficult.

But it can be incredibly easy to ruin a brand.

And the CEO of United Airlines did it with one short letter this week.

If you haven’t yet seen the video of United Airlines forcibly removing a paying customer from his flight (because the airline decided it needed to have another crew member use his seat), here it is. It’s disturbing.

What’s more disturbing is how United CEO Oscar Munoz responded. (And somehow, PR Week named him the U.S. Communicator of the Year.)

Munoz defended the actions of United employees, calling the passenger “disruptive and belligerent.”

Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.

The Internet exploded. United lost $255 million of market capitalization in one day. Munoz’ tone-deaf response offended people around the world. In today’s hyper-connected world, millions watched the disturbing video. And millions saw his arrogant response.

And millions of brand equity vanished immediately.

Munoz did end up getting some better PR advice on Tuesday and began issuing stronger apologies, but the damage to the brand has been done.

There have been rumblings of cultural problems at United since the merger with Continental five years ago. Flight attendants still operate as if the company were running two airlines, causing disconnects between scheduling crews and flight routes. And flight delays.

And the cultural problem seems to go all the way to the top.

How to Not Ruin a Brand

What should Oscar Munoz have said after the video leaked?

He should have issued a heart-felt apology for the way his company treated David Dao. His company forcibly removed a paying customer, who was sitting in his seat doing nothing wrong, leaving him bloodied and humiliated in front of millions of people. There’s no condoning that behavior. The video spoke for itself.

He should have said something like this:

We deeply regret the way we treated our passenger David Dao on Sunday’s flight from Chicago to Louisville. We made a grave error in having security remove him from the flight to allow our crew to fly in his place in order to make their next flight. It was a snap decision and it was the wrong decision. I take full responsibility. We will immediately review our procedures for this type of situation to ensure that this never happens again. I extend my sincerest apology to David Dao and to all of United’s current, former and future passengers. 

That took 2 minutes to write. But United’s PR pros, or Mr. Munoz himself, couldn’t arrive at this simple conclusion.

For those old school, crusty executives like Oscar Munoz, who are out of touch with what customers expect today, here’s a prediction from best-selling business author Brian Solis:

Some of these types of brands will disappear – sooner, rather than later. Customer expectations have changed.

The United brand is now dead to me.

I hope somebody forwards Mr. Munoz the 10 new rules of crisis communications by Melissa Agnes. All marketers and executives should understand these in today’s world.

And here are a few step-by-step plans if you’re planning on engaging the media to build your brand:

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