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United breaks guitars. Also, people

If you’re even vaguely connected to the internet (or a television set), you know what happened. United Airlines took a passenger off a plane. And now the whole world is angry about it, and United’s brand is in ICU.

On Monday, videos taken by Dr David Dao’s fellow passengers went viral all over the world. What’s so controversial about a passenger being asked to ‘deplane’, to use the airline jargon? Well, you have to see it to understand. Dr Dao, 69, was forcibly pulled out of his seat, hitting his face against an armrest. He was then dragged along the floor of the aircraft by security personnel, his mouth bleeding.

United’s flight, scheduled to leave Chicago’s O’Hare on Sunday night was fully booked and all passengers had boarded. The airline now decided it needed to make room for four employees to join the plane. Passengers were offered incentives to leave the aircraft. None took them. The crew decided to select four at random to be asked to leave. Dr Dao was one of them, and declined. The rest of the story…well, you saw it.

When your paying customer is being shown to everyone in the world, confused and bleeding, through no real fault of his own, what should you do? No really, what should you do?

Even a little child knows the answer. You should apologize. You should say sorry, because you should be horrified that this has happened in your company.

So what did United do?

CEO Oscar Munoz issued a mealy-mouthed apology for an apology on Monday, regretting only that the airline had to “re-accommodate” some passengers. The issue flared even further. United now became the butt of jokes and vitriol all over social media. Next, Munoz sent an email to staff on Monday evening that claimed his people had “followed established procedures” and went on to blame the victim, claiming he was “disruptive and belligerent.”

The internet exploded.

Chinese social media users responded with outrage (Dr Dao may be of Chinese origin), seeing racism in the treatment of the passenger. They threatened a boycott of the airline. United’s stock lost close to a billion dollars in value at one point on Tuesday. Next, a media smear campaign started. Some newspapers made revelations about the elderly doctor’s “troubled past” (as though that might justify the treatment). The whole thing now began looking like what women often go through when they report a rape: victim blaming and shaming.

Later on Tuesday, Munoz finally did what he should have done at the outset and said: “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated in this way.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a CEO paid a reported $7 million dollars per annum; who has access to the world’s best PR advice; and who was named “Communicator of the Year for 2017” by PRWeek. (Regular readers of this column know what I think of corporate awards.)

William C Taylor pulled no punches in Fortune when he called the crisis “a failure of leadership up, down and across the organization”, one which will be “scrutinized for years as a case study in what can happen when leaders at every level don’t do their jobs.”

This is no isolated incident. United has form. It is routinely at the bottom of customer satisfaction rankings. In 2009 it broke a musician’s guitar and refused to reimburse him. His video, “United Breaks Guitars” became a YouTube sensation. I use that video every year in my leadership programme as an example of corporate imbecility.

In reputation terms, it matters not a jot whether United’s response was legal or procedural, or whether they are entitled to remove passengers. Poor operational planning; allowing passengers to board before sorting out the seating issue; failing to use incentives or negotiate properly – all these things are the airline’s fault and no one else’s.

What happened next was unnecessary, out of proportion and just plain stupid. The visuals were horrible. It needed very rapid leadership attention from the very top, which came too late.

I have written here before, and even put it on video: never, ever ignore bad stuff that happens to your customers; never deny responsibility; never argue or blame; and never insult the customer.

The correct sequence to follow is: apologize, properly and wholeheartedly; address the issue honestly, and if you find it is truly your fault, compensate and reassure the customer; and finally, learn – understand the causes of your debacle, fix the problem, make sure it never happens again.

There’s no evidence United understands this. I can only hope you do, for your organization’s sake.

(Sunday Nation, 16 April 2017)

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