Not feeling United

Managing director Matt Guarente delves into why the US airline’s latest embarrassment is as much about emotion as actions and words.

Any hotelier – from managers of honest B&Bs to Dubai palaces where even the butlers have butlers – will tell you that repeat business is about how you make people feel.

If they feel good about you, they will pay $14 plus tax for a cup of coffee and they will write nice things on TripAdvisor. It’s much the same with airlines: upgrade me and I love you; bus me to the gate and I moan like hell.

So how do we feel when we are forcibly ejected from a United flight that has been overbooked? And, germane for a communications consultancy perspective, how do we feel about the communication the management made after this much-shared social media phenomenon/outrage?

First, let’s think about how the travellers, having filmed their fellow passenger being manhandled out of the plane, accompanied their footage on Instagram, YouTube and other outlets. Disgusted. Horrified. Shocked. And how will they speak about United in years to come, whenever anyone mentions the airline to them? ‘I was so horrified by what they did to that doctor that time, I’d never fly with them again’ – or similar.

To be clear, at the time of writing we don’t know if he’s a doctor or not. And the facts of the situation look sketchy. But we do know what United CEO, Oscar Munoz, said about it – and how the things he said makes us feel:

‘This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.

‘Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.’

Analysing what he’s saying, he is empathising with his staff. He is sorry that the passengers had to be ‘re-accommodated’, he’s not sorry for much else. There is a sense of urgency – perhaps different to actual urgency – and then, finally, just in case anybody cares, he mentions ‘this passenger’ at the end.

It’s important to note that this seemed to be aimed at United employees – but the letter is actually there as a press release on the United site. So he is thinking about how his people feel, and not so much how his customers feel.

The problem is, the words are now out there, characterising his sentiment about the incident as a whole. And as the old saying goes, it’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

It’s not the first time that internal/external tension has played out to a bemused public with the airline – who recently refused ‘Buddy Pass’ friends and families seats to two teens wearing leggings because their clothing was deemed inappropriate.

Munoz actually did a good job reassuring everyone post the merger with Continental and indeed was recently awarded Communicator of the Year by PR Week. I wonder how the judges of that award are feeling.

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