As something of an expert in the communications field, I’d like to offer my services to United Airlines.
The company has been going through a rough patch of late on the public relations front. The latest oopsie involved a middle school teacher from Hawaii who had to hold her 27-month-old son (a 2-year-old, if my math is correct) in her lap for an entire three-hour flight from Houston to Boston.
According to a report in The Washington Post, the child had a ticket that cost nearly $1,000. But a United spokesperson told the paper that the boy’s “boarding pass had been improperly scanned and that because the toddler wasn’t logged in to the system, his seat was released to a standby passenger.”
So the kiddo had to ride on his mom’s lap, the mom did her best but wound up with a numb arm and leg and the airline apologized to her and “said it is trying to compensate the family for its mistake.”
Asked why she didn’t protest the seating arrangement more before takeoff, the teacher told Hawaii News Now: “I started remembering all those incidents with United on the news. The violence. Teeth being knocked out.”
If you’re an airline — or any business other than a boxing promotion company or the mafia — you probably don’t want customers associating you with news reports about violence and teeth being knocked out.
But that’s where United is right now, due to some minor violence and reported knocking out of teeth.
You’ll recall back in April when a Kentucky doctor named David Dao refused to give up his seat on a United Express flight and was, as described in a Tribune story, “bloodied and dragged down the aisle” by Chicago Aviation Department officers. Dao suffered a concussion and broken nose and lost two front teeth, his attorney said. He later received a settlement from the airline.
That same month, a giant rabbit named Simon was flown from London to Chicago’sO’Hare International Airport aboard a United flight and wound up dead. According to the bunny’s England-based breeder, Simon was swiftly cremated without her permission. The airline later reached a settlement with the breeder.
A bit before the doctor dragging and the bunny burning, United got in hot water after a gate agent refused to let two teen girls board because they were wearing leggings. In retrospect, that seems like a minor issue, given that neither of the teens was dragged anywhere and, to the best of my knowledge, none of their pets was cremated. But at the time, it caused quite a stir.
Some might look at this string of events and say United is teetering on the brink of a public relations catastrophe. I, on the other hand, believe the company is poised to embrace a public relations catastrophopportunity.
It’s all a matter of framing. The company has been quiet and coy in responding to these incidents, presumably hoping they’ll just go away and be forgotten.
What I propose is a PR campaign waged on two fronts.
First, you highlight the fact that it has been nearly three full months since a passenger was bloodied and dragged down the aisle of a United flight. That shows commitment and an ability to learn from mistakes, qualities everyone looks for when making travel plans.
Same with the rabbit thing. As of Friday, the “Number of Days Since a Giant Rabbit Has Died on Our Airline” sign in United headquarters — I’m assuming that exists — reads 79. That’s an impressive number. Don’t run from the tragedy. Show that you’ve got things fixed and are doing a top-notch job of not killing large rabbits.
The second front in this war against lame media types who pounce on isolated stories that make your entire company seem incompetent is to make people want to experience these so-called “mistakes.”
For example, in the case of the teacher who had to hold her 2-year-old for three hours, that’s part of United Airlines’ innovative Family-Bonding Package. Feeling distant from your tweens? Now you can ride with an 11-year-old on one knee and a 12-year-old on your shoulders, forcing the three of you to talk and reconnect. For an additional charge, you can have their little sister stuffed into the overhead bin. (You can communicate with her through the holes where the air vents used to be.)
And there would be other family-friendly packages: “Are you sick of your teenage kids dressing like idiots? I mean, leggings? Really? With United Airlines’ new draconian dress code, we’ll have your slob children spiffed up in no time. Just book the flight … and we’ll do the rest.”
Or: “Is your pet getting up in years? Are you worried veterinary care and cremation costs might be a burden you can’t handle? Then consider booking your pet on a one-way United Airlines flight … to anywhere. We’ll take care of everything.”
And the doctor-dragging incident can easily be marketed to the burgeoning masochism community. Flights would sell out in no time. I propose the slogan: “Fly United, You Miserable Cretin.” (You could even use “United!” as a safe word, providing some additional marketing value.)
I offer these brilliant ideas free of charge to my friends at United.
And I hope they’ll recognize that these options are, at the very least, better than what they’ve been doing.
Rex Huppke is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Readers may email him at email@example.com.