How to land an authentic apology

The CEO of United this week released his second statement to the media following worldwide contempt for the way a passenger was man handled and removed from one of its aircraft. With over 36 hours since a video of the man bloodied and being seen dragged across the floor of the airplane went viral, and with almost $1 billion wiped off United’s share price the CEO (and presumably those around him) decided they had to come out with a more robust statement.

With ‘apologize for having to re-accommodate’ now replaced with ‘deepest apologises’ and ‘we take full responsibility’ the airline is no doubt hoping it’s done enough for the time being to stem the tide of negativity engulfing it.

But how did it come to this in the first place with the airline now on the biggest PR disasters shortlist?

First and foremost there seems have been a complete lack of awareness that in this day and age everything is filmed on someone’s smart phone, with social media providing the power to spread news across the globe in just hours.

Secondly a weakly worded initial statement had the clear hallmarks of having the lawyers all over it, with no real apology, admission of error and some of the worst corporate speak you’ll read all year.

And thirdly this all comes against a backdrop which has seen much of the aviation industry (United included) in a race to the bottom, fixated on pricing, and completely ignoring customer service and experience.

In this day and age, it’s extraordinary that companies continue to make these kinds of mistakes. As a consequence, there can be little sympathy for United when its share price tumbles, its CEO comes under pressure to resign and its passengers boycott and choose to fly elsewhere.

There is a small sliver of hope though for the airline to redeem itself and rebuild its reputation. It’s vital that it does some serious soul searching to establish what went wrong and how it can mitigate against instances such as this happening again. This means, a wholesale review of its customer service – it’s no good offering the odd improved perk, it means a hard look at how it treats its paying flyers and what it wants to stand for as a business.

And while the CEO’s second media statement is an improvement and goes some way to offering a more clear cut apology, the airline will need to go even further for it to seem genuine. It will be absolutely critical for United to tell its customers how it’s plans to change and make things right. This needs to be communicated honesty, in a timely fashion and with a human touch.

And finally it needs all its employees on side. They are the interface with its customers, and as a result have the power to decide the manner in which they engage and interact. A positive experience, will be rewarded with loyalty – something United will be in desperate need of in the weeks and months ahead.

Because at the end of day business is all about relationships.

Holly Rouse, Director, Corporate Communications