The chief executive of United Airlines should be fired or resign if the company expects to recover any time soon from two massive public relations disasters in two weeks, marketing experts say.

Shares in United Airlines’ parent company fell as much as four per cent on Tuesday  after a disturbing video surfaced of a security officer forcibly dragging a man out of his seat, bloodying his face, in order to make way for United employees on an overbooked flight. Horrified passengers can be seen in the background recording the incident on their phones.

A letter to United’s employees from CEO Oscar Munoz was later leaked to media. The passenger — a doctor who had said he needed to stay on the flight to make his shift at a hospital — was one of four randomly selected to be escorted off the flight after no passengers volunteered to give up their seats. In the letter, which voiced support for his employees, Munoz said he became “disruptive and belligerent” and refused to leave when staff asked him.

Sunday’s incident at Chicago’s O’Hare airport came after United’s highly publicized, widely derided episode in late March when airline employees barred two teens from boarding a flight because their leggings were not deemed acceptable for those travelling on so-called “buddy passes” given to family and friends of the airline’s employees. The story resulted in a social media firestorm and a Twitter hashtag, #BanUnited, which resurfaced Tuesday.

“They say brand is culture and culture is brand, and what is happening at United is a very serious cultural problem,” said Andris Pone, president of the Toronto-based marketing firm Coin Branding.

“The leggings debacle is one thing, but then the fact that there were clearly no lessons learned after that happened shows that this is a brand that has completely lost its way.

“This is brand rot starting at the top. You could crash an airplane with a drunk pilot and not get this much negative press, and it is totally well deserved.”

Social media reaction to both incidents were swift and unsympathetic, culminating with an online petition calling for Munoz’s resignation that had collected more than 25,000 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Pone and others agreed, noting the CEO of Volkswagen AG’s U.S. division was replaced by an interim executive a few months after the German automaker admitted to installing software that allowed U.S. diesel vehicles to exude excess emissions.

“This clearly sends a message that the company values a ‘profit over people’ mentality and that is the kind of thing that comes from the CEO and trickles down from the top,” Anthony Kalamut, professor and program co-ordinator at the Seneca College’s School of Marketing in Toronto. “A cultural change is definitely something they need to be exploring.”

Munoz’s statement to the media on Monday was an apology that took no responsibility for the incident: a classic non-apology. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers,” Munoz said.

After public criticism for his first apology, Munoz issued a second Tuesday afternoon where he directly addressed the event on the flight.

“I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” he said in the statement. “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”

With its responses, United has failed on every level to follow basic principles of crisis public relations, the experts say.

“PR 101 is first you admit the mistake, then you apologize sincerely, and then you talk about what you are going to do to make sure it will not happen again,” said Ken Wong, marketing professor at Queen’s University’s School of Business.

United, in both of its recent PR imbroglios, appeared to justify its corporate policies at the expense of passenger service and common sense, and executives then did one worse by reaffirming their initial defenses.

In the case of the bloodied passenger, the airport security officer has been placed on leave pending a review by Chicago’s Department of Aviation, but United will bear the brunt of his rough behaviour because the company supported the passenger’s removal in the first place.

“CEOs are hired to respond to what the board sees as the biggest threat to the company the time of their appointment,” Wong said.

“The reason Munoz is CEO at United and his support at the board level has nothing to do with PR, and was more about the general drive to maintain margins in the face of falling oil prices.”

That may change now if terrible PR is United’s biggest headache and becomes a liability to the air carrier’s stock, Wong said. “If that CEO is not fired, then his contract certainly should not be renewed.”

Financial Post

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