Last week proved to be a devastating one for United Airlines: The dragging of a paying passenger off a plane also helped drag down the company’s reputation. Take a look at this brief StratComm360.org video essay to understand the top 3 reasons why it was such a PR nightmare:

(Direct link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JpyZPUvDYo.)

…. or here’s partial transcript:

“First, is the startling video itself: Research shows that images and anecdotes go straight to our emotions, much more-so than words or statistical arguments. So, even though United’s rate for involuntarily bumping travelers — less than 4-thousand out of 86 million passengers annually — is lower than the industry average … this one, brutal instance … caught on video … dug a deep hole for United to dig itself out of.

Second, the public was already primed to interpret such an event in the worst possible way. Just two weeks before the dragging event, United drew previous negative news coverage for what many saw as an onerous dress code … forcing two passengers to change out of leggings before boarding a flight. United later changed that policy, but the damage to the company’s reputation was already done. And, industry-wide, the public has come to view airlines as ruthless in trying to squeeze every last penny from the operation — including baggage fees and intentional overbooking. The dragging debacle was a visceral flashpoint for an already negative environment for United.

Finally, the mixed messages from United in the aftermath: Company CEO Oscar Munoz, first expressed regret, then doubled-down with messages defending United’s actions and branding the passenger “disruptive and belligerent”… and finally issued another apology admitting the passenger had been “mistreated” in a “truly horrific event”  Mixed messages and changing storylines erode trust, especially when it’s the empathy factor that keeps changing. Empathy is the key ingredient for bonding with stakeholders. What’s more, United’s dueling storylines served to pit one stakeholder group against another — in this case … trashing the passenger while trying to praise the professionalism of employees. “

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