How NOT to apologise in an airline crisis

You couldn’t make it up if you tried. I’m not talking about the incident itself – Bloomberg reported that United is on a long journey to improve their service all round – but next week, @PRweek are awarding Oscar Munoz with the title ‘US Communicator of the Year’. In case you’ve missed it, here’s the video (courtesy of Business Insider):


Munoz may have an easy rapport with shopfloor workers, but his team’s ability to handle crisis comms leaves much to be desired. Here’s the official response from Munoz to the ‘overbooking’ of Flight 3411.

“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.”

And here’s what’s wrong with it, sentence by sentence.

  • “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.”
    No. Start with an apology. Put the focus on the injured party – not your pain.
  • “I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers.”
    This is the wrong language entirely. Acknowledge the problem – get to a place where you can talk about overbooking being a common challenge for the whole industry – use the word overbooked. Don’t avoid the issue.
  • “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency – “
    Just say you’re working quickly, dammit.
  • “- to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.”
    Limp. And partisan – ‘our own’ makes it sound as though you’re not sharing or exploring all of the facts.
  • “We are also reaching out to this passenger – “
    Not clear enough. Be specific in your language. At a guess, you’ve made contact: say so, make a human connection with the injured party.
  • “- to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”
    ‘Further address’ is too vague. As is ‘resolve the situation’.

What should be in crisis comms? What’s missing here? Everything. Start by saying sorry – don’t obfuscate the message with long words. Make sure your tone conveys authenticity: either apologise clearly or don’t bother. Get to the point, show you’re focused on putting things right. Be genuine, and if you can, always finish your first statement by showing how you’re taking things forward from here…

We’re sorry. Whatever the full facts are here, we handled this whole situation badly. Right now, we’re trying to find out exactly what happened – because everyone deserves the fullest explanation. We’re in contact with our passenger, we’re focused on making arrangements for him as quickly as possible, and we’ll issue another statement shortly.

When everything goes wrong – act like a human being first, a business second. Then you may have a shot at changing the business you’re in, rather than simply trying to stay in business.

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