United Airlines: Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea

When a Crisis Strikes

By Rosabel Tao

Between the devil and the deep blue sea. That’s what managing a crisis is like. If you’ve never heard the term, it means “to choose between two undesirable situations."

My husband asked me a good question: “If you were handling PR for United, what would you have done?” First off, what happened was a catastrophe in every way. It was shocking and extremely disturbing. Combined with the terrible way they handled it, this is going haunt them for a long, long time.

Even when companies have the best intentions, a blundered response can make them instantly seem guilty, or even sinister. That’s why the first statement is critical. It sets the tone for how people will receive future communications. While you can’t plan for a crisis, you can plan for an orderly and sensitive response.

A lot of companies bungle their first (and sometimes the second and even third) response.  

There could a be a lot of reasons, such as:

  • They are in denial
  • They initially misjudge the severity of situation
  • They underestimate or think they can outrun the public’s reaction
  • They hope (unreasonably) it’ll pass quickly and go away on its own
  • They err too far on the side of caution and by the time they respond, the story is too far gone
  • They are worried about saying too much or admitting fault for fear of legal reprisal
  • They are operating on a different value system than the public has
  • Their privacy policies, government regulations or legal confidentiality clauses limit how transparent they can be

How does that happen? When a crisis hits, there are a thousand factors to take into considering a response. Behind the scenes, there is a certain cadence that almost always plays out in the early moments after a crisis hits:

  • You're caught flat-footed. You have no advance warning. (You can plan for some incidents, but I’m not sure anyone could have anticipated this one.)
  • Even if notified immediately, you don’t have much information, so you’re not sure what exactly happened, how and why. Often, it's mass confusion.
  • As soon as you hear about the incident, you gather all the key executives to assess the situation and make decisions. Inevitably, there is at least one critical person who is not immediately reachable (i.e., they are on a plane, on vacation in Siberia, whatever) and that person has to be tracked down.
  • Meanwhile, the initial story goes viral and people draw conclusions before you’re able to provide background and context. All this puts you immediately 10 steps behind.
  • This in turn immediately triggers an avalanche of media inquiries, outraged consumers on social media, questions from concerned employees, customer service calls and more. Everyone is pressuring the company to say something, anything. All this can happen in less than an hour.
  • You do not want to issue a response until you have facts, contingencies and a full vetting of the story, but that takes time — time you do not have, as the story is reverberating around the world.
  • There are a lot of competing opinions in the Executive suite. Saying too much puts you at legal risk in the case of a lawsuit. Saying too little puts you at PR risk. (I’m sure you can guess which side I’m on.) That’s why you’re “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” It’s a precarious balance and you try to find a statement that appeases all sides.
  • A statement is drafted and all the key people have to review and edit it. If the situation is technically complicated, you have to find a way to explain it simply but thoroughly. This is difficult to do because when you oversimplify it, you lose some of the nuance. Hopefully you still end up with a strong statement, but as we saw with United, it can easily get watered down in the process.

Any company can suffer from an unexpected crisis. It’s how they respond that sets them apart. While every crisis has its own unique set of circumstances, it helps to have a crisis preparedness plan in place. The plan should anticipate all the possible crisis scenarios and pre-determine exactly how you will handle the internal and external communications process. You cannot possibly anticipate every scenario, but having a plan allows you to reach decisions more quickly in the thick of confusion and the pressure of the moment and help ensure you get the response right.

When Your Brand is Heading Into a Free Fall, Do Not Push it Over the Cliff

United Off a Cliff.png


While I can’t know why United chose to respond the way they did, everyone knows that their first statement was a disaster.

It took United a day and a half to release their first statement, and when they did, it was cold, bland and totally off base: “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

Re-accommodating customers?! That reads more like apologizing for having to move someone’s seat — not forcibly removing a paying passenger from a plane that United, itself, intentionally overbooked.

United’s statement was widely mocked for being ridiculous and tone deaf. (Case in point: Washington Post headline: "United Ridiculed for Corporate Speak.") Later, United issued two more external statements — each one stronger than the last. On the third day, United's CEO fell on his sword again, going on Good Morning America to humbly apologize and relay that he felt "shame." 

And the fallout continues…

That’s why it’s critical that the first statement is “good.” It sets the tone for how people will receive future communications. So, that begs the question: what is a “good” statement?

A “good” statement is one that:

  • Is issued immediately, ideally within a few hours or at least the same day, even if you don’t have all the facts. It’s more important to acknowledge the situation, show caring and provide updates as more details emerge
  • Demonstrates a human and humane response; takes responsibility and apologizes with sincerity, empathy and remorse
  • Does not hide behind corporate-speak and legalese. Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it moral or right and no one will make that distinction in the court of public opinion
  • Communicates steps you are taking to rectify the specific problem (i.e., third party investigation, etc.) and how you will address the broader underlying cause of the issue
  • Promises to keep people updated on your progress and completion of these steps

You’ll see that United’s last statements did follow these guidelines – but how much better would it have been if they said it in the first place?

Let’s recognize it’s extremely hard to strike the right balance of expressing genuine contrition but also not exposing the company to more risk. However, when your brand is in heading into a free fall, this is not the time to err on the side of caution. You can still save it. The event that precipitated the crisis is bad enough but a poorly handled response can push the brand off a cliff.

Loss of trust and reputation costs real and lasting damage to a brand’s value (See Volkswagen as a cautionary tale) that will take years to recover from – if ever.


Rosabel Tao is a Communications Strategist at Cunningham Collective.