Lesson Learned: The Cost of Not Being United in Crisis Response

United Airlines's response to a passenger being dragged off a plane in Chicago has made headlines again today with the company experiencing a significant hit to its reputation and stock price. While it’s always easy to second guess crisis response, there are some important lessons organizations can take away from United’s experience.

The latest criticism revolves around United CEO Oscar Munoz. After issuing a largely unapologetic statement to the media characterizing the incident as “upsetting,” he released a letter to employees describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent” and stated that established procedures were followed.

The lack of empathy in the public statement followed by the callous language of the letter has called United and its leadership into question.

In addition to the tone and substance of the communication, the obvious mistake made by United’s crisis team was, first, not being consistent in its communication with its various audiences; and, second, not anticipating the employee letter would become public.

In developing and executing crisis response, it’s common practice that messages may be different according to audience. The key is making sure there is a level of consistency and congruency to avoid a situation like United’s.

The proliferation of social media in recent years has escalated this even further. Organizations must assume that anything they release internally will quickly find its way into the public discourse. A savvy organization will sometimes create and execute internal communication during a crisis with the intention of the message going public to reinforce other response efforts.

In United’s case, doing the opposite has led to its crisis response never really getting off the ground and now there are multiple issues to resolve.