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5 Lessons We can Learn from United Airlines’ Public Relations Mistakes

3Public relations are meant to create a narrative with your key audience and establish a sense of trust with clientele. An effective public relations strategy can shape your company image in a positive light and enhance your organization’s overall agenda. However, public relations can go terribly wrong. There are countless examples of poorly-handled PR disasters over the years, and it bears mentioning one of the worst —United Airline’s response to a passenger being forcibly dragged from a plane— to see what we can learn from their mistakes.



In 2017, United asked 4 passengers to give up their seats on an overbooked Flight 3411. After offering vouchers, they still didn’t have enough volunteers and instead arbitrarily selected passengers to give up their seats. One passenger, Dr. Dao, refused. United had airport police forcibly remove Dr. Dao from the plane. He hit is face on an armrest and was dragged from the plane, a bloody mess, to the horror of onlooking passengers who recorded the entire fiasco on their phones. Videos hit Twitter and Facebook feeds instantly, with thousands of angry responses. United had a globalized public relations nightmare on their hands.



Violently dragging a passenger from the plane was bad enough, but it was United’s response which elicited a truly unmitigated PR disaster. United issued statements apologizing for the flight’s “overbooking,” without mentioning Dr. Dao. They apologized for having to “re-accommodate” passengers, saying United crew followed protocol. The response fell far short and the public responded in outrage. United’s stock fell almost a billion dollars, and they ended up having to backtrack with an apology to Dr. Dao. Most people saw this as a latent response to public outrage and rapidly falling stocks, and the response did little to repair United’s damaged reputation.



1) United Airlines made a big mistake when they tried to deflect attention from the issue, first blaming the customer, then the police who carried the man off, and finally using language that made them look even worse —“re-accommodating customers from the plane”. The bottom line is customers expect you to make it right when you make a mistake. Diverting attention or blaming others will never regain trust. Take responsibility and show genuine regret — sincerity goes a long way in re-establishing customer trust.


2) Companies should be well-aware of the power of social media by now. In truth, real-time aspects of platforms like Twitter can be a double-edged sword—shaping public opinion as events unfold. United didn’t respond to the intense criticism they received for hours, exacerbating the problem and fueling customers’ rage. Urgency is vital!


3)  Train employees to deal with difficult situations.

Empower them to make decisions, but also to know when to resort to management when dealing with bigger crises. Teach employees to act from a position of empathy. That’s how United made their biggest mistake in putting company policy over the well-being of their customers.


4) A misunderstanding can evolve into a major disaster overnight.

Of course, building an effective company strategy to deal with mistakes and bad press is imperative. Develop a plan and know when and how to implement it. We saw what happens as a result. Undeniably, United’s tone-deaf response showed a lack of preparedness. They could have diffused a social media time bomb if they had developed an effective strategy for dealing with it.


5) Communication is everything.

The heart of public relations is your ability to effectively communicate with your audience, including knowing how to respond when you make mistakes. Being able to communicate your goals and strategies within your company is equally important. Therefore, developing a response strategy to public relations issues is imperative to the long-term success of every company.


To learn more about how a creative brand agency can help you build an effective public relations strategy, contact the experts at Web Content Development today.  

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About the Author

Erica D’Arcangelo – De Silva

Erica D’Arcangelo – De Silva has worked in the Internet marketing industry for the last 20-years. Erica is the top-secret SEO weapon to marketing and advertising agencies in the world. She has generated over 300+ million in revenue for high-value brands such as Walmart, Pottery Barn, iRobot, Cutting Edge Firewood, Kelley Blue Book, and many more. Erica has custom-created more than 1,000 content, SEO, and marketing strategies which held the key to doubling and tripling online traffic, and marketing ROI. She has also authored a series of online publications including The Digital Branding Survival Guide, Million Dollar Marketing, 5 Steps to Increase Web Traffic by Blogging, and Repairing Your Online Reputation.