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The Damned United?

The Damned United?

How brand management can go wrong!
As lawyers, we are service providers to our clients like lots of other businesses. Like all law practices, my firm develops various ways to develop and grow client loyalty and relationships: we want everyone to have a good experience with us and recommend us to others. For some reason, physically assaulting our clients and forcibly removing them from our offices is something we never thought of trying. Unlike, it seems, United Airlines.

You will, no doubt, have seen the footage or at least heard about Dr David Dao’s forcible ejection from a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, earlier this week. The aftermath of that was an interesting example of how brand management can go wrong.

Anyone who watched the footage (I’d particularly recommend the version with sound) would realise that it showed a particularly bone-headed, mindless course of conduct by those who were bundling the unfortunate doctor off the plane. It could even be considered bad luck that, of all the passengers they could have selected to remove, they opted for a healthcare professional travelling back to do a day’s work the following day rather than say, a politican or a banker off to spend his bonus.

However, the fair-minded of us might also think it harsh to assume a small number of individuals were truly representative of a huge organisation like United Airlines, or indeed the entire domestic US aviation industry. Viral content on social media often generates a huge fuss that can die down quickly and be largely forgotten.

But no. While, at this point, it may have been possible to contain the situation with an apology and efforts to compensate Dr Dao, the CEO of the airline, Oscar Munoz, chose to sprinkle his own PR stardust on the matter. He issued a non-apology statement accusing the passenger of “belligerent” and “disruptive” behaviour. Before long, every news outlet was looking into the incident and how it happened. We learned that airlines routinely overbook flights, prioritise their own staff scheduling and rotation over commitments to their passengers and are only too quick to summon heavy-handed law enforcement when they aren’t allowed to do what they like. As coverage moved onto these topics, the non-apology quickly gave way to increasingly craven and humble actual apologies while the news media started researching Dr Dao’s biography and subjecting him to the sort of scrutiny he may well not welcome.

In the long run, the scrutiny this has brought to airline industry business practices could be a lot more detrimental to United’s reputation. One incident, however shocking, might have been ultimately seen as a freakish one-off. Yet, by handling this in the way they did, United may have a lot of work to do before they are seen as a route to the ‘friendly skies’ again. Their brand, goodwill and customer loyalty, built up over many years will, like Dr Dao, have taken a battering this week. He will be bringing legal proceedings against the airline in due course; I would not be surprised if the airline try to settle them as quickly as possible.

Liam McMonagle is a Corporate and Commercial Partner. If you have any questions about brand protection or managing reputational damage please contact Liam on 0131 225 8705 or by email at

Posted by Liam McMonagle


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