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3 Small Business PR Takeaways From the United Airlines Debacle

In case you’re one of the six people on earth who haven’t yet heard, United Airlines has a bit of a problem on its hands.

On Sunday, April 9, a video of a man being forcibly removed (read: dragged, kicking, bloodied and screaming) from his seat began to surface, and, as such things go on the internet, it spread like wildfire.

The reason for the violence? United needed his seat — the one he’d paid for, and was currently sitting in — to accommodate some employees. The man — a doctor who had patients to return to – did not want to give it up.

By Monday morning, the internet was abuzz with calls for a boycott, snarky tweets announcing United’s new “fight club” class and enough memes to get anyone through a transatlantic flight.

It was a PR nightmare, and United couldn’t remain silent anymore — but maybe they should have.

In the airline’s first statement, they apologized — not to the passenger, but for the “overbook” situation. In fact, the only time they mentioned the passenger at all was to place the blame squarely on his shoulders, then say, “further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.” Eventually, United CEO Oscar Munoz addressed the press himself, and somehow managed to make it worse, apologizing for “having to re-accommodate these customers.”

“Re-accommodate.” Let that swirl around in your brain for a moment.

On Tuesday, April 11, Munoz released yet another statement, saying in part: “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.” Overall, it took United three different tries and nearly 48 hours to “kind of, sort of” apologize. But by then, the damage had been done.

What’s the takeaway for your small business, and how can you avoid this sort of PR nightmare?

Don’t Rush to React

Once the video surfaced, United knew they would have to address it at some point — but had they simply waited a few more hours to react to it, they certainly could have come up with a better initial statement.

As a small business owner, you’ll be faced with an angry customer or two occasionally. The trick is to stay calm, think it through, and never react in the heat of the moment.

Ditch “Corporate Speak”

The first two United statements were so full of canned language and corporate-speak, it’s amazing anyone could understand it at all. It wasn’t until the third statement that Munoz began to sound like a real person rather than a robot.

Your customers, fans and followers are people — so talk to them like it! There’s no need to sound like you swallowed a thesaurus; a simple “Hey, guys, I really blew it and I’m sorry” sounds both human and humble.

Have a Plan to Fix the Situation

“I’m sorry” is only the first part of a sincere apology. You then need to acknowledge why you were wrong and outline a plan to fix the situation.

“Mr. Jones, I’m sorry we were late for your scheduled appointment. It must have been frustrating to take time off work only to be kept waiting. We’re going to make some changes to our scheduling system to make sure it doesn’t happen again, but in the meantime, this service call is on us.”

Big or small, your business is only one bad decision away from a PR problem. It’s how you handle that problem that will make or break you.

At Mischa Communications, we don’t advocate pulling humans off airplanes, but we can help you fix or prevent a PR problem. United should have come to us — and you should, too! Call or email us today and let us know what we can do to help with your small business marketing needs.

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