United Airlines: how not to write an apology

Airplane with blood spatter

Did you see United Airlines' response to that shocking footage of a passenger being dragged off a plane? It's worth reading as a textbook example of how not to write an apology.

Here it is in all its hideous unglory:"This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation."United's CEO, Oscar Munoz, was rightly ridiculed on social media for this mealy-mouthed non-apology.Here’s what went wrong - and what you can learn from it.

1. Its starting point is wholly writer-centric

From the outset, we know where Munoz's priorities lie. His note is all about ‘us’ - and how upset ‘we’, United, are.Not a jot of acknowledgement of the distress caused to the poor, brutalised passenger. Or, for that matter, to the terrified witnesses. Some, by the way, were children. Instead, we kick off with some self-centred bleating that has all the authenticity of a sad-face emoji.

Lesson: Never make the apology about you. If you’ve screwed up, nobody wants your self-pity. Instead, acknowledge the pain you’ve caused and leave it at that. Otherwise, you'll sound like a spouse whose response to being caught cheating is: ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you’. No. It. Doesn’t.

2. It totally misses the point - by apologising for something irrelevant

Munoz apologises for completely the wrong thing, namely ‘having to re-accommodate these customers’.Look, Oscar, people aren’t angry about four customers being asked to take a later plane - and well you know it. They’re angry about one customer being forcibly dragged off a plane, in a dazed and bloodied state.Apologising for the 're-accommodation' rather than what looked very much like an assault is a deliberate strategy to make the other party appear unreasonable. A bit like saying ‘I’m sorry you’re upset’. It's also got Legal's hand all over it. I suspect the first draft came back from General Counsel with the following scrawled on it: 'No apology for assault. Tantamount to admitting liability. Please revise and resubmit for sign-off'.

Lesson: Don’t try and dodge responsibility by apologising for a minor non-crime when the real harm lies elsewhere. If Legal says you can't apologise for something sueable, just say nothing. Don't replace that something sueable with something non-sueable, in the hope we won't notice. We will.

3. That word ‘apologise’

Ever noticed how people who aren’t sorry just can’t bear to use the actual word, er, ‘sorry’?Instead, they merely call attention to the act of their own apologising by saying ‘I apologise’. It’s a way of paying lip service to the demand for an apology, without expressing any real remorse.

Lesson: If you really are sorry, never say ‘I apologise’. Just say ‘I’m sorry’.

4. That word ‘re-accommodate’

Munoz’s use of the word ‘re-accommodate’ was widely derided for the dishonest euphemism that it is. As @CeejTankGaming tweeted:This response by .@united CEO sounds like a teenager response to an insult. "I'm gonna re-accomodate your face with my fist"

Lesson: People can see right through a euphemism, especially in an apology. So don’t try to hide your wrong-doing behind inocuous language. Instead, admit to your mistake in words that are open, honest and upfront.

5. Those words ‘reaching out’

Tony Soprano used the phrase ‘reaching out’ to mean ‘calling a meeting with another family’. Ever since, I’ve never been able to see this favourite of the corporate lexicon as anything but the first shot in an inevitably violent turf war.Here, too, I can’t help detecting more menace than conciliation in Munoz’s statement that ‘we’re reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation’.Translation: ‘We’re sending in the legal heavies to silence him’.

Lesson: Have an outsider with a sensitive ear read your apology before you hit send. Make said outsider not a lawyer.

6. His comms teams weren't communicating (with each other)

The menace of ‘reaching out’ became all-too apparent when we learned that Munoz had emailed his employees to say he ‘emphatically’ stood behind them.Adding insult to injury (literally!), the email to employees went on to describe the abused passenger as ‘disruptive and belligerent’. Nice work, Oscar!

Lesson 1: Be consistent in your comms. Don’t apologise (however anaemically) in one note, while slating your apologee in another. Make sure your PR and Employee Comms teams are talking to each other, especially in a crisis. Otherwise, you're just creating more clean-up work for everyone.

Lesson 2: Employee Comms 101: everything you send to employees is public information. Everything. Always assume it will leak out. Always.Now, if you want to see how a proper apology is done, take a look at this wonderful missive from a representative of Curzon cinemas.