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If United Airlines Has Any Hope of Reputation Repair, Here’s What Needs to Happen
United Airlines is facing another public controversy after mistakenly shipped a family’s German Shepherd to Japan while the family flew to Kansas City. This comes after a 10-month-old bulldog died in an overhead bin on a flight from Houston to New York.
Anthony D’Angelo teaches public relations at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. Despite the many public embarrassments and errors the company has faced in recent years, D’Angelo says it’s possible for the company to counteract the damage to its reputation, but officials need to act quickly.
“The death of a pet, shipping a pet to the wrong location, dragging a doctor down an airplane aisle, introducing and then shelving an ill-conceived lottery bonus plan—together, these incidents create a snowball effect on United’s reputation. I think it’s still possible for United to counteract the effect through strategic actions, but the company should do so urgently lest any additional incidents motivate customers, stockholders, legislators or the board of directors to call for heads to roll.”
“United’s string of public controversies has seemed like death by a thousand cuts, but it’s important to analyze both the business effects and the effects on public opinion—which aren’t always the same. Former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall has said the awful news of the dog’s death won’t have much impact on United bookings, and CNBC’s Jim Cramer agrees, noting that consolidation of carriers over the years has limited consumer choices when it comes to selecting airlines that meet an individual’s travel needs, reducing even appalling incidents such as this one into painful blips. In other words, many factors come into play when assessing the effect United’s spate of controversies will have on its bottom line and stock price.
“That said, I think United’s reputation as a business that’s in control of its operations has suffered over the past year, and that could ultimately hurt its sales and valuation. United should plan to answer this question, in detail: ‘what’s really going on at United, and what are you (company leaders) doing to fix things?’
“In my opinion, United’s responses thus far don’t provide enough detail for a satisfactory answer. A company statement appropriately said the company assumes full responsibility for the dog’s death, but that doesn’t go far enough to explain how it will assume responsibility. United should express remorse directly to the dog’s owners and make amends for the tragic mistake, then detail what actions it will take to prevent any recurrence. United should demonstrate empathy and should be seen taking complete ownership of mistakes, then take aggressive actions to repair damages done and prevent repeat offenses.”
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