'Sorry' seems to be the hardest word

Rufus Staff Writer

Cast your mind back to March 2017. Remember what you thought of United Airlines then? Good, bad, indifferent: I’m willing to bet the name now makes you wince.

In part this is, of course, because you’ve seen a 69-year-old doctor being dragged bloody and screaming from one of their planes in footage filmed by a fellow passenger. He had a ticket, he had a seat, and yet he was removed by force because the plane was overbooked. If they can do that to him… ran the thought. It’s a PR disaster of a kind every business dreads in this age of instant, viral ‘fame’. 

Man dragged from plane

But if we thought that was bad, then came the response from CEO Oscar Munoz. In a statement released on Twitter he said, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.” And he followed this up with a letter to staff referring to the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent”. Situation sorted? Yes, if his intention was to send the share price plummeting and the internet into meltdown. 

It’s worth asking what could have happened if he’d said sorry. And meant it. We all know from our own lives that the way we apologise matters. It can be difficult and make us uncomfortable, but a genuine apology can diffuse anger and reset relationships.

And it starts with our language. Munoz was roundly condemned for his corporate speak (“re-accommodate”?). More than that though, he failed to acknowledge the pain and distress caused to the injured passenger – or those that had witnessed the event first hand. 

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.

Instead, he managed to imply United was the injured (or “upset”) party, while dodging any responsibility for the forced removal (“I apologise for having to re-accommodate these customers”). The ultimate non-apology, in other words. 

He could have done it differently. Here’s how. 

  1. Use your own words. We’re much more likely to believe someone is genuinely sorry when their language is plain, simple and real and includes these two magic words: “I’m sorry.”
  2. Make it personal. Rather than referring to the people on the plane as “customers”, Munoz could have addressed them directly as “you”.  It’s the equivalent of looking straight into someone’s eyes as you say sorry.
  3. Beware of ifs and buts. Nothing undermines an apology more than an attempt to shift the blame somewhere else. Be sincere, let your apology stand on its own.
  4. Take responsibility. Using the active voice – “I made a mistake” – shows that you acknowledge your responsibility. It introduces energy to your language and it enables you to then move on to the action you’ll take. Being clear about how you’ll avoid this mistake in the future is an important step towards getting a relationship back on track.
  5. Choose your medium. Munoz was up against a viral video. What did he choose to do? Issue a stiff statement on Twitter, accompanied by the tweet: “United CEO response to United Express Flight 3411”. Then he sent a letter to his staff. Wouldn’t a video have been better to reach the world? And a phone call to the passengers? And an email to his staff? And an interview for the press? Find the best way to reach your audience, and do it.

Rufus Staff Writer

We’re designers, coders, strategists and more. Whether it’s the latest #brandfail, a new tech trend or changes in our industry – we’ve got an opinion on it.