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19 Apr 2017

BY Sophie Griffiths


'United Airlines must say sorry - and mean it'

By Sarah Rathbone, managing director of Siren Communications

United has a huge challenge in having not acted fast enough - it’s harder to back pedal.

United Airlines 737

A PR expert looks at where United Airlines went wrong in its handling of last week's incident

Firstly United needs to make an effort to deliver personal apologies to everyone on the flight. Say sorry and mean it. To listen intently to David Dao and take all his feedback on-board, and show true sympathy and empathy in how they handle every tiny customer service issue from now on.


The media is watching like hawks for tiny slip ups and examples that cement United as a bad business. This includes addressing their social media response time and tone when responding to other customer issues and concerns.

Customers, investors, employees and everyone watching this saga needs to see genuine action and remorse. United has announced a policy change that means crew cannot displace passengers. Whilst that is a baby-step towards progress, it doesn’t address the fundamentals of what has gone wrong. The issue wasn’t just around a broken policy, rather, aggression and an immediate knee jerk reaction that the passenger must be wrong in the face of video evidence showing something far more horrifying.

The fact that a decent apology didn’t happen in the first few hours after the video came to light shows that United has a culture problem.

A culture change programme will take time, but it is important to showcase that what has happened – and other customer gaffs before it – have no place in the future of United.


The company’s people also need reasons to be proud to work for the airline so that they can be true ambassadors to the business - to put right any wrongs before they become social media sensations and global headlines. Good people need to be empowered to make decisions that protect the brand.

PR cannot recover a brand if the fundamentals of the business are not customer-centric. United needs a purge of policies and procedures that are not customer-first, and to start implementing the easy to fix elements as quickly as possible.

As customers begin to see that United knows it was wrong, then PR can start to do some great work. Longer term United needs to be focused on being a promoter and defender of the good. This can start as simply as considering surprise and delight programmes, rewarding loyalty well, recognising and highlighting the good people within United doing amazing work. But this needs to be a programme of sustained activity.


United’s big danger here is that they can apologise and put in quick fixes, but they have to stick to them and show that being shocked into change has delivered a long-term reaction.

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