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Discuss About The Relations As A Crisis Management Function?

United Airlines is one of the largest and oldest airlines in the world. It operates over four thousand flights everyday carrying passengers across five continents (Wahba, 2017). It boasts of having the most comprehensive network of routes with an estimated annual carrying capacity of one hundred and fifty million covering more than three hundred airports in the world. It maintains a large fleet of aircraft numbering in excess of seven hundred. United Airline is a founding member of Star Alliance providing service to 28 member airlines (Wahba, 2017). On October 1, 2010 the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange under the name and symbol UAL following internal restructuring.

United Airlines was founded in 1916 trading under the name Boeing Airline Company (Heppenheimer, 1995). The company embarked on an ambitious strategy of acquisitions, mergers and amalgamation of other aviation-based companies. The company initially specially operated mail-only services. It was not until March 1931 that the company acquired United Air Lines, Inc. launching commercial airline services. It is by dint of this acquisition that United Airlines lay claim to being the first passenger flight company in the USA. The company focused flight routes between member states in the USA, following a path successfully trodden by the mail service branch.

In 1933, the company acquired a Boeing 247(Heppenheimer, 1995). It was a revolutionary introduction in the flight industry. For the first time in the history of commercial flights, passengers were able to fly directly across the USA without the necessity of making an overnight stop. It was faster than any previous model. However, it was not all-smooth sailing. On October 10, 1933, Boeing 247 suffered mid-air explosion and crashed in Indiana, killing all seven people aboard. Successful investigation revealed detonation of a bomb concealed in the luggage section of the plane (Heppenheimer, 1995). This marked a first in targeted air sabotage. By 1940, United Airlines had acquired fifty aircrafts on its fleet. Their planes would eventually be modified to offer support to the armed forces of the USA during World War II.

As technology in aviation advanced, the company cashed in renewed demand for air services. As opportunities grew so were the dangers. On November 1, 1955, United Airlines suffered another bombing killing all forty-four people aboard. Unlike the previous bomb, this time the culprit was apprehended (Heppenheimer, 1995). The company suffered a series of deadly accidents in the late 50s losing three planes in three different mid-air collisions. This helped to develop the current Air Traffic Control.

Federal Investigations

On June 1, 1961, the company merged with Capital Airlines to become the second largest airline in the world only surpassed by the Aeroflot based in the Soviet Union. This marked another stint in an aggressive expansion of the company characterized by acquisitions and modernization of its fleet. On 23 December, 1973 the company would cement it goodwill among the public by registering another first (Heppenheimer, 1995). Flight DC-10 was the first civil flight to carry a seating president of the USA. The company has maintained positive high ranking in the perception index amongst the public.

In September 2015, the company parted with its chief executive officer and two other executives following investigations by the federal authority. The company was suspected to have entered into a quid pro quo agreement with the then chairperson of Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (Boon, 2016). The port authority in return was asked to effect some improvements to Newark Liberty International Airport. The airline chief executive officer eventually pleaded guilty and duly resigned, costing the company 14% of its stock market value. Oscar Munoz was appointed to steady the company following the departure of its former leader (Boin, 2016). Mr. Munoz has steered the company into a major turnaround. In spite of initial concerns about his health, he managed to broker contract extension between the airline and flight attendant union that had hit an impasse for over a year. The company also gained twenty seven percent on stock capitalization during the year 2016.

However, the company damaged its relatively good image following an altercation on flight 3411 on 9 April 2017. On the material day, security officers were called in to eject one passenger. The flight had been overbooked and the crew requested four of the passengers to a light (Lammers, 2017). None was willing. It was at this point that security was called to forcefully eject one Dr. David Dao off United Express Flight 3411, schedule to depart for Louisville. Dr. Dao had maintained that he could not cancel his considering he had to attend to patients back in Kentucky. The security detail proceeded to drag Dr. Dao on the floor of the plane toward the exit much to the consternation of fellow passengers. The wailing doctor later claimed to the media that he was targeted on the basis of his race. He is of Asian origin. He was later hospitalized as a result of the rough treatment meted upon him by the security personnel (Lammers, 2017). The whole episode was recorded by passengers on board using their telephone. By the time the flight was landing in Louisville, the video footage of the incident was already trending social media. It was quickly picked by the mainstream media.

Forcible ejection of Dr. David Dao

The first official response to the episode came via the CEO, Mr. Oscar Munoz apologizing for having to re-accommodate passengers. It made no mention of the injuries suffered by Dr. Dao. The online response to Mr. Munoz was fast and furious.

The reigning U.S Communicator of the year had turned his company’s poor customer care incident into a PR disaster (Lammers, 2017). The ramifications spread into the stock market, crashing the nominal value of United Airlines by an estimated one billion dollars.  An isolated incident had turned into a global disaster fuelled by the power of the social media. The response of the company had amplified the problem.

A proper response would have been to offer quick and unreserved apology to Dr. Dao acknowledging the bodily injuries sustained during the scuffle (Lammers, 2017).Days later, an e-mail by the CEO meant for internal consumption was leaked to the media commending the actions of the employees and how they responded to the incident. It went ahead to malign Dr. Dao as being disruptive and belligerent. He noted how the employees had followed laid down procedures to handle such cases.

The public backlash toward the airline was taken a notch higher. The absolute lack of basic empathy by the company was unacceptable. The chief executive officer had been hired to fix a public relation crisis occasioned by his predecessor (Lammers, 2017). One year down the line, he had created his own public relations disaster.

A few days later Mr. Munoz was forced to apologize to Dr. Dao for forcible ejection from the plane describing the incident more appropriately as horrific. He reiterated his commitment to make things better and duly took the responsibility. By this time, the airline was in public perception crisis, social media awash with memes ridiculing the company (Lammers, 2017). The chief executive officer should have moved with speed to offer apology and contain the damage caused by the viral video.

The importance and power of the social media cannot be overemphasized. It had propelled an isolated incident into a global public relations disaster. Companies can no longer get away with such bad incidents are long gone (Lammers, 2017). The smartphone and the digital technology have the power to spread such occurrence to a global outreach. Once the video was posted online, the video assumed some element of permanence; it could no longer be removed from the media. United Airlines had lost control over it. This calls on the need for companies to develop appropriate policy regarding interaction with the public via the social media.

Response by the company

Dr. Dao’s case attracted a lot of interest in China, a hugely promising target market for company growth. His assertion that he was mistreated because of his Asian decent is likely to have adverse effect on the airline as the target market must have watched the unflattering video (An, 2010).

A month after the video surfaced, another negative incident was reported. A giant rabbit on board united airline bound for Chicago died mid-flight. Ordinarily such an n issue would not attract much public interest (Lammers, 2017). However, the previous treatment of Dr. Dao had broken its previously good image and any bad incident was bound to be told to the world.

It is important to respond quickly to customer related incidents. This entails seeking the aggrieved person and offering an apology before reports of the incident spreads (Lammers, 2017). This was a critical failure on the part of Mr. Munoz. It is also important that all underlying facts are established before going to the media. Once every detail of the incident is established, it becomes easy to design the right response not only to the aggrieved persons but also to the media (Lammers, 2017). When sharing such information with the media it is important that you be transparent. You should be ready to own your response, admitting mistakes if they happen and taking necessary action to avoid such mistakes happening again.

We live in an era of cell phones that produce videos and capture moments instantly. The incident bedeviling the united airline is simply a snippet. It captures the worst part of a long incident. That is the modern age. A more tactical approach such as offering compensation to any passenger who volunteers to cancel his booking would have said the day (An, 2010). That should have been the first line of public relations. When the ugly incident happened, timely apology should have pacified emotions. It did not come early enough and when it did, United Airline did not address the root cause. Transparency was seen lacking. It marked a chain of poor public relation exercises that hit the good name of the airline costing it current and potential earnings. A competently assembled public relations team would have addressed and managed the crisis before it gained global notoriety. It needed a simple sign of empathy and care on the part of the company.

United airlines should be guided by the following principles when developing future policy to guide in public relations (Wamba, 2017). It represents internationally recognized maxims that must guide the thought process of formulating the company’s PR exercise:

Public outrage

The public relations personnel should always practice honesty. United Airlines should never have attempted to mislead the public by releasing wrong information lacking in facts (Fall, 2004). Lies have the tendency to unravel and when they do the potential, fallout would be worse than the issues the company had tried to conceal. The information being disseminated to the public should attempt to portray the company as positively as possible. However, the underlying principle is keeping as much to the truth as possible.

Any form of press release emanating from the company should be accompanied with the name of contact persons, telephone numbers and both the mail and e-mail address (Fall, 2004). The public should have communication channels made open with the company, and also to give a chance to media to make follow ups should the story be of interest to them

The mode of dissemination of information will be based on the target audience. With the widespread social media platforms, a large audience can easily be reached (Fall, 2004). The video showing Dr. Dao being forcibly removed from the plane reached global audience mainly because of social media. In addressing the fallout, the management of United airline should make every effort to reach as much audience as the damaging video.

Visual images have the power to shed emphasis on whatever subject that may be under discussion (Fall, 2004). The unfortunate incident involving Dr. Dao gained traction with the public mainly because it was in form of a video. The footage of the scuffle in which the security team could be seen roughing up the passenger had a powerful effect on the emotions of the public. At that juncture it did not matter whether the employees of the United airlines followed the laid down procedures, the video showing a bloodied Mr. Dao being dragged out of the plane served as a powerful tool in emphasizing the folly of longstanding poor customer care practices of the company. In the same breath, any response to the mistreatment should attempt to whip up the emotions of the public as much as possible. The purpose is to paint the company to be as caring and full of empathy as possible.

Good media relations certainly are very important. Journalists have the power to advance the image of the company in either way. Warm ties will likely give the company opportunities for interviews opening up channels to advance your strategies to the general public (Fall, 2004). A poor relationship with the media is likely to expose the company to unwarranted negative reporting in the public. It is in the best interest of every public relations professional to have a journalist as an ally and not a foe.

The power of social media

The PR department of the company must understand the wide range of tools available to them choosing, the most appropriate depending on cost and the target audience. This includes seminars, personal interviews, direct mail, speeches and web broadcast.

Most press releases from public relations officers are planned well in advance. It may have been arranged to showcase launch of a new product or unveiling new office holders. However PR personnel must be prepared to release timely media report should a scandal breakout. Timely response will serve to calm down an agitated public (Fall, 2004). In the case of Mr. Dao, the company took too long to come out and issue an apology. When it eventually responded, it failed to understand the extent of damage caused by the video. United Airline must be prepared to face the public in the right way when an emergence need arises.

Public relations professionals should always be available either in person or through contacts where they can clarify issues regarding the company before distorted information is published in the media (Fall, 2004). Remaining available on call is critical to public relations. In the same breath, United Airlines should not wait for the big moments to come out and meet the public through media. They must stay active throughout, engaging the public through other channels such the social media and seminars.

Before coming out to the public through the media, it was important that United Airlines public relations team gathered all facts relating to Dr. Dao’s incident. Although a timely response is important, it would defeat logic to rush to defend the company before checking your facts (Fall, 2004). Any information released to the public that eventually proves false is likely to hurt the airline in the long run.


An, S. K., & Cheng, I. H. (2010). Crisis Communication Research in Public Relations Journals: Tracking. The handbook of crisis communication, 65.

Boin, A., Stern, E., &Sundelius, B. (2016). The politics of crisis management: Public leadership under pressure. Cambridge University Press.

Fall, L. T. (2004). The increasing role of public relations as a crisis management function: An empirical examination of communication restrategising efforts among destination organisation managers in the wake of 11th September, 2001. Journal of Vacation Marketing, 10(3), 238-252.

Heppenheimer, T. A., &Heppenheimer, T. (1995). Turbulent skies: the history of commercial aviation. New York: J. Wiley & Sons.

Lammers, J. C. (2017). Search form. Crisis.        

Seldin, M., & Johnson, L. (2017). How United Airlines’ Analytics and Algorithms Can Help to Save American Democracy. World Journal of Social Science, 4(2), 52.

Wahba, G. (2017). Measuring the effect of Viral Negative Sentiment on Market Value: Case Study on United Airlines Crisis 2017

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