3 Pages Case Study – Uniteds Turbulent Communications Strategy

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Case Study #2
United’s Turbulent Communications Strategy

United gained instant notoriety in 2017 following an incident in which a passenger was violently
removed from a plane in Chicago. Unfortunately for them, the company’s immediate handling of the
incident only made things worse. This activity is important because it demonstrates how essential a
good communication strategy is for a company’s ability to handle incidents such as this one if they
come up.

The goal of this activity is for you to identify exactly how United’s approach to communication
affected its ability to rebuild its image following this incident.

Read about United’s 2017 flight-related incident in Chicago and the immediate aftermath. Then,
using the three-step problem-solving approach, answer the questions that follow.

United Airlines is one of the world’s largest airlines serving 353 destinations across five continents.
The Chicago-based carrier has approximately 92,000 employees and earned more than $41 billion
in revenue in 2018.1 Oscar Munoz started as United’s CEO in 2015, and by March 2017 was named
“Communicator of the Year” by PRWeek. Unfortunately, he fell from grace a month later due to
United’s botched response to a flight-related incident.2 Let’s consider how United communicated
about the incident.

Sunday, April 9: Chaos on Flight 3411
A fully booked United flight 3411 was preparing to depart from Chicago to Louisville when gate
agents realized that four airline crew members needed to get to Louisville. The gate agents asked
for four volunteers to give up their seats in return for compensation. No one accepted United’s offer
because the flight was the last one to Louisville that evening. United then decided to enact an
“involuntary de-boarding situation,” in which four random passengers were directed to deplane.
Three of the passengers deplaned without incident. The fourth, Dr. David Dao, refused, saying “I
can’t get off the plane. I have to get home. I’m a doctor. I have to get to the hospital in the morning,”
according to The Sentinel News.3

United employees responded to Dao by contacting the Chicago Department of Aviation Security. A
scuffle broke out between the officers and Dao when they tried to forcibly remove him from the
plane, resulting in a concussion, broken teeth, a broken nose, and other injuries for Dr. Dao. The
bloodied image of Dr. Dao was posted on social media and rapidly spread around the world.4

Monday, April 10: United’s Initial Response
A series of communication blunders transpired the next day:

• United released a statement apologizing for the “overbook situation.” The airline would later
backtrack and clarify that the flight was not actually overbooked, and passengers were
removed to make space for United employees.

• CEO Munoz released a public statement on Twitter calling the incident an “upsetting event,”
but did not address the treatment of passenger Dao. He apologized to the passengers who
were involuntarily deplaned but called their removal “reaccommodation.”5 According to Sean
Czarnecki of PRWeek, the word “reaccommodate” was then “lodged in the Internet lexicon
as a United Airlines euphemism for brutally assaulting your customers.”6

• CEO Munoz sent an internal letter to United employees blaming Dr. Dao for what happened,
calling him “disruptive and belligerent.” He also stated that he fully supported his employees’

handling of the situation.7 The internal letter quickly became public, which flamed the
negative publicity.

News outlets compared videos of a bloodied and bruised passenger being dragged off an aircraft
with United’s defensive, unempathetic, written responses.8 The result was outrage on social media
with thousands of flyers signing a petition demanding Munoz’s resignation. Many also called for a
boycott of United, whose slogan of “Fly the Friendly Skies” was tarnished by the incident.9 In fact, a
survey conducted by Morning Consult found that nearly half of the respondents said they would pick
a more expensive, longer flight to avoid giving United their business.10

Tuesday, April 11: United Changes Course
A turbulent day on Wall Street kicked off after United’s initial response to the incident. The airline
started the morning losing nearly $1 billion in stock value. Munoz responded by releasing another
written statement. This time he struck a different tone and took “full responsibility” for the episode
and said that Dr. Dao should not have been “mistreated” the way he was. The airline also pledged to
conduct a review and quickly release findings. Although the statement helped reduce the stock’s
slide, United still closed the day down around $250 million.11

Wednesday, April 12: Munoz Appears on TV
On Wednesday morning, Munoz utilized another medium of communication by appearing on ABC’s
“Good Morning, America.” His body language was solemn as he said he felt “shame” when he saw
the video of Dao being dragged off the plane. “This can never—will never—happen again on a
United Airlines flight. That’s my premise and that’s my promise,” Munoz told viewers.12 The airline’s
efforts may not have been enough to turn the tide. A survey taken by LendEDU after Munoz’s TV
appearance found that 42% of millennials, the most frequent business travelers of any generation,
would still not fly with United.13

A Tough Couple of Weeks for Munoz and United
The crucial conversations spurred by flight 3411 continued for weeks after the incident. United
published full-page ads in several major U.S. newspapers in late April. The ads included an apology
from Munoz. “That day, corporate policies were placed ahead of shared values,” said United’s CEO.
The ads also outlined how the airline was changing its policies to prevent the reoccurrence of such
an incident.14

Munoz’s handling of the situation took a toll on his career at United. The airline’s parent company,
United Continental Holdings, denied the CEO’s planned promotion to chairman weeks after the
incident.15 Ironically, he too lost a seat he expected to receive.

Footnotes
1. “United Airlines Annual Form 10-K for Year Ended December 31, 2018,” https://ir.united.com/investor-
relations (accessed March 27, 2019).
2. M. Castillo, “United CEO Oscar Munoz Was Recently Named ‘Communicator of the Year’ by PR
Week,” CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2017/04/11/united-ceo-oscar-munoz-recently-named-
communicator-of-the-year.html (accessed March 27, 2019).
3. Ashley Sutter, “Shelby Woman on United Flight Says Incident Was Avoidable,” The Sentinel
News, April 14, 2017, https://www.sentinelnews.com/content/shelby-woman-united-flight-says-incident-
was-avoidable.
4. C. Zdanowicz and E. Grinberg, “Passenger Dragged Off Overbooked United Flight,” CNN, April 10,
2018, https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/10/travel/passenger-removed-united-flight-trnd/index.html.
5. E. McCann, “United’s Apologies: A Timeline,” The New York Times, April 14, 2017,
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/business/united-airlines-passenger-doctor.html.

6. S. Czarnecki, “Timeline of a Crisis: United Airlines,” PRWeek, June 6, 2017,
https://www.prweek.com/article/1435619/timeline-crisis-united-airlines.
7. N. Khomami and J. Lartey, “United Airlines CEO Calls Dragged Passenger ‘Disruptive and
Belligerent,’” The Guardian, April 11, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/11/united-
airlines-boss-oliver-munoz-says-passenger-belligerent.
8. C. Zdanowicz and E. Grinberg, “Passenger Dragged Off Overbooked United Flight,” CNN, April 10,
2018, https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/10/travel/passenger-removed-united-flight-trnd/index.html.
9. N. Khomami and J. Lartey, “United Airlines CEO Calls Dragged Passenger ‘Disruptive and
Belligerent,’” The Guardian, April 11, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/11/united-
airlines-boss-oliver-munoz-says-passenger-belligerent.
10. J. Passy, “Survey: Nearly Half of Young Americans Say They Won’t Fly United
Anymore,” MarketWatch, April 21, 2017, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/nearly-half-of-young-
americans-wont-fly-united-anymore-2017-04-21.
11.. S. Czarnecki, “Timeline of a Crisis: United Airlines,” PRWeek, June 6, 2017,
https://www.prweek.com/article/1435619/timeline-crisis-united-airlines.
12. E. McCann, “United’s Apologies: A Timeline,” The New York Times, April 14, 2017,
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/business/united-airlines-passenger-doctor.html.
13. J. Passy, “Survey: Nearly Half of Young Americans Say They Won’t Fly United
Anymore,” MarketWatch, April 21, 2017, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/nearly-half-of-young-
americans-wont-fly-united-anymore-2017-04-21.
14. C. Thompson, “United’s CEO Bought a Full Page Ad in Dramatic Apology for Passenger Dragged Off
Plane,” Business Insider, April 27, 2017, https://www.businessinsider.com/united-ceo-apologizes-in-ad-
for-passenger-dragged-from-flight-2017-4.
15. B. Meier, “Oscar Munoz Won’t Get Planned Promotion to Chairman of United,” The New York
Times, April 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes. com/2017/04/21/business/united-airlines-ceo.html?_r=0.

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