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From ‘tone-deaf’ to ‘textbook’: Experts review the United CEO’s first — and latest — apology

Just one day after issuing a statement that was widely mocked online after a passenger was pulled screaming and bloodied from his seat on United Airlines, the company's chief executive is trying for a do-over. 

After an initial apology that public relations experts called "astonishing,” "sterile” and "tone-deaf,” crisis communications pros say Tuesday's statement from United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz ticked many of the boxes that were utterly lacking in his first one — expressing sympathy or emotion, offering an unequivocal apology, taking full responsibility and committing to fix the problem so it never happens again. "I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” Munoz wrote in the statement. "I promise you we will do better." 

The question, they asked, was why it didn't happen earlier. "I don’t know who his evil twin was over the last two days, but had they done this Sunday night you wouldn't have been writing this story," said Richard Levick, a Washington-based crisis communications consultant. "He just took a huge step to undoing this crisis."

United Airlines CEO apologizes for ‘horrific event,’ promises review of policies after passenger violently deplaned

Others marveled at the abrupt shift in tone, noting the irony that Munoz had been recognized as the "Communicator of the Year” by an industry publication less than a month ago. "I’ve never seen anything quite as whiplash-y,” said Deb Gabor, the chief executive of brand strategy consultancy Sol Marketing. "It is unfathomable to me that the CEO of a major corporation, especially one that was recognized as 'Communicator of the Year,' was this asleep at the wheel."

The furor began after videos of the now infamous incident — in which a passenger was forcibly dragged from his seat Sunday by security after refusing to give it up to a United Airlines crew member needed for a later flight — surfaced online. On Monday, the company sent out a tweet that contained Munoz's meme-friendly statement about having to "re-accommodate” passengers. That was followed by an employee memo over the incident that was viewed as defensive, sparking a public relations nightmare, a drop in the airline's stock price and an international crisis as Chinese customers questioned whether the evicted passenger, who is Asian, was the target of discrimination.

Experts criticized the initial statement for not expressing sincere emotion, not offering a real apology, and doing little to recognize the experiences and feelings of others. For one, they said, the Monday tweet said "this is an upsetting event to all of us here at United” but didn't recognize those who witnessed the incident, the experience of the passenger dragged off the plane or the fears of fliers everywhere.

"It was from the point of view of United and its employees but didn’t show empathy for the humans involved — all the humans around him on the plane who were horrified and traumatized by what happened," Gabor said. (Emails to the company regarding critiques of Munoz's initial statement were not immediately returned.) 

In the new statement, Munoz addressed the flying public, saying "like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happens on this flight.” That's a much more appropriate tone in a crisis, said Carreen Winters, who leads the corporate reputation practice at the public relations firm MWW. The new statement, she said, "was written as if he took off his CEO hat and put on his customer hat and said: 'What would I be thinking and feeling if I had been on this flight?' "

The initial tweet was also condemned for what was widely seen as Munoz's non-apology apology, sparking memes and hashtags across social media about what people viewed as corporate spin. "There’s no point in actually calling it an apology,” said Gabrielle Adams, a professor at the London Business School and Harvard University who has studied CEO apologies. "A real apology would have been more along the lines of 'we're responsible, we're sorry, we won't do it again. Here's some kind of explanation for what happened and then acceptance of responsibility.' " 

Munoz's new statement follows that classic PR playbook, one that has been studied closely enough that there is a science of effective apologies that's well known in the crisis communications world. He not only says "I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard” but says "we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.”

Another criticism of the initial statement corrected in the latest version was United's silence on how it would reassess policies that led to the fiasco. "What people really want to know is what you’re going to do to prevent it from happening again,” Winters said. "You can’t change the past, but you have 100 percent control over the future.”

The release of Munoz's internal memo to employees, in which he defended workers' actions and called the passenger "belligerent” and "disruptive,” only added fuel to the fire, sending a mixed message to the public statement to customers. "It's the wrong order,” said Anthony Johndrow, chief executive of a reputation advisory firm in New York. "To have the urgency of telling employees you’ve got their back and to not tell customers you have theirs shows an astonishing lack of awareness. ... A lot of people would call it tone-deaf."

A man wouldn%u2019t leave an overbooked United flight. So he was dragged off, battered and limp.

As of Tuesday afternoon, it's unclear whether customers will agree with Munoz that "it's never too late” to do the right thing and correct his apology. Some questioned why the company waited until the stock price dropped before issuing the more comprehensive statement, while others wondered why the new statement took so long for the company to deliver.

Branding experts did the same. "I'm still left scratching my head on why did it take so long for them to say this,” Gabor said. "It doesn’t take 24 hours to formulate a response that expresses concern for the human beings involved in the incident.”

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